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.

Ragnarok: The Fate of Gods

Hey everyone! Special super extra bonus entry this week! I get to clue you in on one of the most amazing book offers a video game fan could ever ask for. Just kidding! Actually I just want to subject you to some shameless self-promotion. But still, if you enjoy video games–which you should, if you read this blog–you would enjoy this book.

Ragnarok: The Fate of Gods tells the story of a swordsman struggling to survive in a Post-Apocalyptic Orwellian dystopia, terrorized by monsters and ruled by a reclusive overlord. I could tell you more of the plot, but I’d just end up repeating all the information on the Amazon Page.

Why should I pitch this book here? You mean, other than the fact that I have very few meager sources of income and would appreciate the $1.97 royalty per copy sold? Well, when I wrote it, I blended a lot of common themes from video games, popular science fiction, and myth. Particularly if you enjoy RPGs–and most specifically Final Fantasy, Xenogears or Xenosaga–you should read it.

Unfortunately, no, you can’t find print copies, only the Kindle edition, BUT you can read it via a free kindle app if you don’t have your own e-Reader. Also, amazon has made the book available (in English) on many of their multinational websites; good news to all my non-American readers. Just search for “Ragnarok Fate of Gods.” Otherwise, to buy via the American site, follow this link.

Keep in mind that I have a masters degree in publishing–I didn’t just hammer this out over a weekend and slap a price tag on it. You’ll get some high quality stuff here, and it’ll only cost you three dollars.

And if you like it, please leave a review on Amazon for others to find. And then tell two friends…and have them tell two friends…

Thanks!

 

Final Fantasy IV – NDS

A beatifully animated, fully-rendered 3D opening sequence, the style of which you never see again. Why does Rosa look like she has swine flu?

A beatifully animated, fully-rendered 3D opening sequence, the style of which you never see again. Why does Rosa look like she has swine flu?

I you will permit me, I’d like to start on a serious note, preferably without discourse as to whether or not my usual candor qualifies as humorous. I just finished Final Fantasy IV, something I claim to have done no more than twenty or thirty times in the past, and suddenly I can put my finger on why I appreciate Japanese storytelling more than Western writing. That whole dichotomy between good and evil and the struggle there between, falls a little flat, and as people have a pesky habit of applying fiction to moral decisions (for which I recommend reading Kurt Vonnegut or Charles Dickens) rather than, you know, just treating people well, such a dichotomy tends to screw up society.

ffiv-infernoHow so? Start with Beowulf. The draugr Grendel came from the lineage of Cain. And if that doesn’t earn him his own private hell, he also killed people and ate them. Then Beowulf shows up and slays him to punish evil. Excellent, right? Well, let’s take a jaunt over to this week’s game and look at Kain, who came from a noble lineage of dragoons. Golbez manipulates him into committing evil acts on his behalf. Then Cecil shows up, decides not to kill him, and you get a wonderful exception to normal RPG party limits that lets you fight with a fifth member. Now skip on over to Star Wars where we find Darth Vader, the Father of all Incarnations of Pure Evil. Except George Lucas wanted to show him redeem himself at the end, atone for his crimes and bring balance to the Force. But no one took it that way and we all talk about Vader as a badass so evil that he makes Satan sith his pants in terror; this pisses off Lucas, so he makes us sit through a crappy prequel trilogy to show us how badly we misunderstood this character. Then in Final Fantasy, Golbez pulls the classic Vader twist, Cecil struggles with the news, but eventually forgives Golbez, who goes on to clear out the first form of the big bad Zemus for you, then goes into self-imposed exile out of remorse. And this trend runs throughout Asian religion and literature from Journey to the West to Dragonball; no one possesses absolute good or evil, and everyone can atone. Full disclosure: Cecil’s atonement on Mt. Ordeals *always* gives me chills, and I’ve played the game forty or fifty times.

They put enough thought into the new translation so as to actually appear as though they put thought into the translation.

They put enough thought into the new translation so as to actually appear as though they put thought into the translation.

Despite everyone’s praise for FFVII, this installment changed the world of electronic RPGs more than anything else, having introduced novel ideas such as actually giving a character a personality and a conflict to resolve, and introducing thematic congruity throughout the story. Also, having a story. And dear god, music so good that Japanese schools instituted it as mandatory curriculum. I might even confess that I played the FF Main Theme, which played during Rosa and Cecil’s wedding, as the opening to my own wedding. While I have a special relationship with FFVI as the first RPG I ever played (and played and played…), I find myself playing FFIV about once per year, and only in part because they port and remake the game with a regularity that anyone over the age of 70 would envy. (Seriously…FFIV (Japan), FFII (USA), FFIV Easy Type, FF Chronicles, FFIV for the Wonderswan, the GBA, a few systems I probably missed, and then this version.) So when I found out that the game would receive such a drastic makeover as they gave FFIII, building it up in three dimensions with voice-acted cut scenes, I actually played the game in Japanese because I didn’t want to wait for the North American release (and thankfully, I lived in Korea at the time). Also I intend to argue that that qualifies me as bilingual and that I don’t have to pass a language proficiency test ever again.

A more appropriate representation of in-game cut scenes, the character design obviously symbolises that neither Cecil nor Kain can see the path before them. Because of their helmets.

A more appropriate representation of in-game cut scenes, the character design obviously symbolises that neither Cecil nor Kain can see the path before them. Because of their helmets.

So other than the aesthetic makeover, why should I waste my time on yet another release of a game I’ve already played sixty or seventy times? Square decided that simply milking it for cash wouldn’t cut it in the long run, so they added some chocolate to that milk. Many enemies have different attack patterns, and certain attacks and spells function differently; for example, if you expect simply to bounce Bahamut’s megaflare back at him, you’ll soon discover the reflect spell has all the defensive capabilities of a burlap sack soaked in gasoline. These changes tailor the game to develop strategies, without which you will pass through the game with the ease of a golf-ball sized kidney stone. To help ease said passing, characters now can augment their abilities using items mostly looted from the corpses of their dead friends. As the name suggests, these augments will give characters extra commands to use in battle or enhance their qualities akin to the relics in FFVI. Unfortunately, the game explains this system with all the clarity of Sylvester Stallone explaining quantum physics while running a garbage disposal at 6:00 in the morning. It fails to tell anyone who’s played the game before that you won’t waste your augments by giving them to characters who won’t stay in your party. Instead, it’ll let you loot even more powerful abilities from them. Thanks, game. I could have used that information during the early game when I usually drudge through the road from Damcyan to Fabul, ruing Squaresoft for giving me a bard and wondering why anyone in their right mind would ever choose to play as a bard.

And while discussing the merits–or lack thereof–of things no one ever uses, they’ve added an entire garage sale full of assorted junk to the roster of items. You know those too-pointless-to-use magic items that Square seems to love handing out? The ones that cast low-level spells at a fraction of the stats that their black mage counterparts have available? And you usually get them when you’ve had their upgraded version in your regular magic menu for hours? Yeah, the game chucks them at you like a Double Dare physical challenge. And they’ve added a mapping feature to make use of the dual screens–any time you complete drawing a map of a dungeon floor, you get an item. Or five or ten. I’ve found uses for some of them; they’ve added items that permanently upgrade HP or MP, while helped keep Rydia and Rosa alive and not useless in battle. But usually you’ll get an antarctic wind or a bomb core or–my personal favorite–items that cast status spells that never work anyway. You no longer have to replenish arrows–each one gives you an infinite set, which takes a bit of the fear out of using Rosa, lest she run out of anything useful to do and end up tossing pebbles, but now Cecil can’t equip bows, making him all but a burden in the Lodestone Cavern.

ffiv_battleUnfortunately, for all the clever re-figuring that they did when assembling the DS version, even with augments and strategies and piles of crap looted from caves, eventually (and often) you will run into an enemy–not even necessarily bosses–that hits your entire party for more damage than you can take in a single blow, or that spams an attack faster than you can keep up with it, and you only have the option of leveling up in order to resist. Having played the game once before, I knew this and kept a steady pace of leveling up through the game. I did all right in most places, but the final dungeon clearly took offense at my presumption that I could fight through basic battles at a paltry level 65. So thank you, Square-Enix, for taking one of my favorite games of all time and adding just the right dose of tedium to turn it into a fucking level grinder.

FFIV DS group shot

I can only really recommend this game for the die-hard FFIV fans who have played the other versions eighty or ninety times, like me. I liked it. Mostly. The voice acting impressed me when I heard it in Japanese, and it only got better when I listened to it in English and actually understood it. Also, I appreciate the recognition that people still want to play certain games even twenty years after their first release. But it requires a certain level of patience and know-how to both grind and solve strategic puzzles (the only kind that actually belong in non-puzzle based video games!), and it might turn off first-time players (as well as some second-, third-, and tenth-time players). Still, the dramatic points in the game still awe me after a hundred times through the game, and finishing the game rewarded me with the realization that Yang, our blonde-mustachioed Asian Fabio, can attend a wedding bare-chested without the slightest sense of impropriety.

Final Fantasy VII – Playstation, PC

Title

Thank god they fixed this! Why, I could almost hear the fabric of society bunching up around my nethers!

Thank god they fixed this! Why, I could almost hear the fabric of society bunching up around my nethers!

“They say words like ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ in it,” my friend John told me about Final Fantasy VII in ninth grade. This sums up the major features of the game quite nicely. Sure, at the time it came out, people hailed it as a demonstration of the cinematic powers of CD-based game consoles, but anyone who played it knew that it really demonstrated Tifa’s enormous rack as it jiggled like two shopping bags full of Jello when the explosion at the northern crater shook the Highwind–the game also demonstrated what Squaresoft could do when not oppressed by Nintendo of America’s horribly oppressive censorship requirements.

...Cloud, on the other hand, looks like he'd prefer some private time.

…Cloud, on the other hand, looks like he’d prefer some private time.

Final Fantasy VII almost needs no summary. Everyone knows about it by now. It changed the video game scene; believe me, I took weeks to decide whether I’d say that or not. People have made that claim about FFVII all over the internet–as they have about FFIV, FFVI, FFX and just about any new piece of technology that comes out. If you locked me in a room with ten dozen donuts, you wouldn’t especially look at the first one I ate and credit it with having special sprinkles with the power to break my will; it would have happened eventually.  However, the events surrounding the game’s release did successfully allow a number of things to happen.  Well, mostly it only took Square getting royally pissed at Nintendo for not giving them a CD-based console to work with, so that let them make the switch to Sony, which propped up Playstation as a major competitor in the market, leaving Nintendo wallowing in the dust trying to figure out how to entice their customers back without actually offering any good games.

"Must look intimidating...can't let them see...hair burning..."

“Must look intimidating…can’t let them see…hair burning…”

Still, I’ll concede that not everyone reading this has played the game, so I’ll sum it up: The multi-conglomerate Orwellian corporation known as Shinra, or in short, “Big Mako” have discovered an energy source even better than the sludge left over from decomposed corpses–the souls that used to inhabit those corpses.  Pulling the spirits of the dead out of the planet, they compress them and convert them into electricity so people can play video games (among other things), which naturally pisses off the local hippies.  Except rather than a skinny little white guy with a guitar and bloodshot eyes, a seven-foot tall powerhouse of a black man with a machine gun grafted onto his arm leads them, along with his double-D companion, Tifa, and her brooding, stormy, anti-social childhood friend, Cloud. Their game of cat-and-also-cat ends when one of Shinra’s old mistakes–a genetically engineered super-soldier with the DNA of an ancient monster sent to destroy the planet–arrives and plants a Nodachi two meters long into the President. Yada yada. Sephiroth burned down Cloud’s and Tifa’s hometown and now plans to destroy the planet, Cloud and his friends stop him.  The game ends, and the player looks up pictures of Tifa’s breasts on the internet.

So what do you think...they look fake, don't they?

So what do you think…they look fake, don’t they?

Although I joke about Tifa and her apparent fan following of CGI Animators on redtube, I truly believe in the necessity of adding a character with a large amount of sex appeal.  And not just her, but also Barret, his constant stream of profane tough-guy talk, his place as the only black guy in the entire fantasy genre except for that one dude from the Neverending Story, and the subtle gay vibe between him and Cloud.  Also, the comical string of obscenities that Cid spews forth could scour the rust off a car.  These things indicated that Squaresoft wanted to treat their audience like adults.  Games have aged since Donkey Kong, and so have their players; gone are the days of staring at Celes’s 16-bit pixilated sprite and trying to imagine something a little more photo-realistic.  I love the whimsical nature of those early games, but people actually seem to live in this world. Characters have speech patterns and dialects and everything.

Furthermore, in designing the combat system, Squaresoft took this notion of well-developed, distinct characters…and chucked it right into Ifrit’s hellfire. Custom characters have long attracted players to the Final Fantasy series. Games like Final Fantasy IV gave us special abilities like Kain’s jump or Rosa’s pray. Three and five (and later Tactics) allowed characters to learn skills permanently to equip in specialized combinations. Six mixed that, with character-specific skills and the ability to permanently use magic and raise stats. So naturally, we would expect something brilliant and revolutionary, now that we have 32-bits to utilize, right?

Same old ATB, stand-in-a-straight-line combat system, but with runaway summon animations lasting over two minutes!

Same old ATB, stand-in-a-straight-line combat system, but with runaway summon animations lasting over two minutes!

Nope! Forget all that–it all boils down to materia.  From the beginning of the game, any character can equip any materia–crystalized mako energy containing the knowledge of the ancients–which can let them cast magic, summon monsters, perform special abilities, augment other materia, or raise stats. The game only limits you by how much materia you can afford/find and how many slots your weapons and armor has to put them in. Characters can’t retain any of this once unequipped, so only limit breaks–powerful attacks only available once a character has received an amount of damage proportional to the power of the attack–and physical appearance in battle differentiate one character from another. And the game chucks characters at you like it wants you to sign up for its online dating service; with nine characters, parties of three or less, plus the old-school restriction of requiring the protagonist to lead your party at all times, I always have two or three who sit on the sidelines for the whole game, just to save money equipping them and to focus on building up the limit breaks for the more interesting characters. Which, yes, I usually choose based on physical appearance, in light of anything else. Which means the dog and the toy cat usually get bumped in favor of Tifa and Yuffie. And quite possibly Barret.

Anyone who's ever raced a chocobo knows the triumph every time you defeat Teioh...and the pathetic reward that usually follows.

Anyone who’s ever raced a chocobo knows the triumph every time you defeat Teioh…and the pathetic reward that usually follows.

Fortunately, though, Squaresoft packed more into this game than a hackneyed combat system and a questionable set of feelings for an electronically generated configuration of polygons.  In fact, I usual enjoy playing this game to completion.  Likely in attempt to show off the Playstation’s capabilities, FFVII includes a plethora of mini-games including a submarine battle, motorcycle chase, and a snowboard sequence so obnoxiously difficult that it only proves Cloud can run into more walls than Wile E. Coyote.  Furthermore, at the end of the game you open up the option to breed generations upon generations of chocobos–obviously the best hobby to take up with only seven days left to global annihilation.  You can raise chocobos to race, or try to raise special colors to help find all those hard-to-reach areas of the world map.  Again, I enjoy this, but sometime the task takes way too long, and the games variables don’t really feel truly random–while each race offers a 1 in 6 chance of winning the good prize, I seldom actually walk away with anything I couldn’t buy in any one of the hundreds of identical shops in the game, and quite often when trying to breed chocobos that can mate with each other, you’ll end up getting the wrong gender or the wrong color several dozen times in a row.

Final Fantasy VII also offers two bonus bosses, similar to the hidden bosses from FFV and the original Final Fantasy.  The Emerald and Ruby weapons make up for the plateau of difficulty toward the end of the game.  This presents a conundrum though because even though these bosses exist to add challenge to the game, in order to take them down you have to level up far more than necessary for anything else in the game, and it takes the punch out of anything else you’d do.  And while Sephiroth stands as one of the most iconic, impressive villains in any fantasy storyline, it generally disappoints me when I get to that final battle and he fights back with all the strength of an anemic guinea pig.

He's too sexy for his shirt, so sexy it hurts! He's too sexy for that sword...

He’s too sexy for his shirt, so sexy it hurts! He’s too sexy for that sword…

However, despite the overpowered characters in act three, frustrating random number generator, and a protagonist with forearms like Popeye, the storyline makes this game well worth playing. The save-the-planet eco themes offer, well…actual themes in a game’s storyline.  Sephiroth captivated so much attention by defying the obnoxious tradition that fantasy has of presenting magic-using villains, and the final scene with him carrying two meters of solid steel and dressed like a Chippendale dance only cements the fact that for once, just once, the villain earned his role in the story by acting like a dick to the protagonist, rather than because we all need to learn about how idolatry will lead us straight to Hell (thank you, C.S. Lewis, for welding Christianity into fantasy literature for all time…can we please talk about something else?). And, of course, spoiler alert, while FF characters have died before, nothing tops the moment when we lose Aerith forever. As I explained to my class the other day while doing the video-games-as-literature lecture, “When this happened, I cried like a baby!…no, you don’t understand, this happened like, two weeks ago.”

So to all those people who “debate” whether FFVII or FFVIII leads the series as the best game…WTF? You totally can’t compare the two.