Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade – GBA

 

FE - Stab

Quit poking me.

Oh god, when does the Fire Emblem madness end?

FE - Big Bird

What the hell, dude? I just asked if you could tell me how to get to Sesame Street!

Now. It ends now. I have Path of Radiance sitting on my shelf, ready to go, but like for firearms, it might be a good idea to impose a mandatory cool-down period, lest I totally flip my lid, fling the disc in the air, shoot it like skeet, then use its shards on a murderous rampage. But knowing Fire Emblem rules for weapon degradation, it’ll probably do enough damage to leave an unbleeding flap of skin on my first victim’s thumb before the disc completely disintegrates, leaving me defenseless against the inevitable counter-pummeling I’d then receive. Damn, I know Fire Emblem games have a reputation for being hard, but I’ve played six of them now, and the Binding Blade is easily the worst of them all. This game is more punishing than growing up with an ex-military hockey coach dad and a rampaging tiger mom (And trust me; growing up with just a hockey coach dad, we had our own gulag set up in the basement for bringing home any grade lower than a B.).

FE - Handsome

And I am conceited.

So first, some background on the Binding Blade—or “Fuin no Tsurugi,” or “The Sword of Seals” or “The Sealed Sword”–was never released in the U.S. Naturally, Fire Emblem was only released in the U.S. at all on account of Marth and Roy appearing in Smash Bros., so why Nintendo’s refusal to release Roy’s game is akin to a drug dealer lacing a joint with crack, and then selling you nothing but Xanax and Advil when you come back for more. So the Binding Blade is only available as a fan translation. Now, I’ve played some great fan translations before, but back when I was listing off the different titles, you may have noticed that “The Sealed Sword” doesn’t quite mean the same thing as “The Sword of Seals” and “The Binding Blade.” Personally, translators who can’t tell the difference between the genetive and a participle (which, for non-grammarians out there is like not knowing the difference between a 4th-grade Valentine card and a restraining order) probably should be kept far, far away from a Fire Emblem story. Even the well-translated games read like someone chucked Game of Thrones fan fiction through a wood chipper. The Binding Blade feels like after they did that, they threw it in a hot bath with a Risk board and some discount Anime figurines named after T.H. White characters.

FE - Kage Bunshin

Kage bunshin no jutsu!

Aside from writing that flows naturally as a story arc for Wheel of Fortune, the gameplay hits one of my battered, raw RPG nerve endings—low accuracy rate. Missing needs to be an option for video game combat. It adds a random bit of chance into battles, a little flavor on top of mathematically predictable fight scenes. So if missing is the spice to add flavor to battle, the accuracy rate in The Binding Blade is a full-on turmeric overdose. Rather than trading blows in a nice, even manner to progress the game, characters stand on opposite sides of a tornado and chuck Nerf darts at each other. Using save states, I actually began to manipulate the RNG just to get through the game, and it seems like some weapons are glitched to hit far less often than their accuracy rate, and there is little that can make a game more tedious than rushing into battle with Ray Charles, Helen Keller, and the entire pre-op ward of a cataract surgeon’s clinic.

FE - No Arms

Murdock has overcome great adversity, not having any arms sprouting from his giant shoulders.

Low cash flow, breakable weapons, and few chances for experience are staples of Fire Emblem games, but again, the Binding Blade expands this to the absurd. There are inner-city school districts with more funding than Roy’s army. So even though the game quite regularly springs for an extra hoard or two of enemies halfway through each battle, units have to lie on their resumes for experience. This is becoming a constant theme on my blog, but if I wanted to live surrounded by shoddy items, less financially solvent than most crows, fighting a futile battle to get more experience to change all that, I’d just shut off the goddamn game and write a few cover letters.

FE - Animal House

These are getting a little lazy. Rutger…filed his income tax. Marcus…had cake for breakfast. Roy…I don’t know. Went to bed early or something.

I feel at this point, it’s still not clear just what kind of a blinding rage this game threw me into, so let me make this point: in order to finish the game on a reasonable timeline—which still took probably more than 50 hours—I had to use over 280 save states. That’s right, the sheer number of save states I used to get through this Fire Emblem game would have caused binary overflow on an NES. Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier I had to learn how to manipulate the RNG. If I have to go into full research mode, read what people have written about the game mechanics, delve through the game’s coding, run controlled experiments with each unit on each turn and (optional) publish a dissertation on my findings, chances are this will be a difficult game to enjoy, to say the least.

FE - Report Card

I haven’t been this pissed off over a report card since I got a C in 8th Grade English.

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Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones – GBA

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Ah, yes…the tropes are strong with this one.

Although Fire Emblem is quickly becoming a new favorite series for me, my efforts to charm and amuse you by saying something witty and unique about each game are stymied by the ever-present reality that reviewing individual games in a series is often as productive as reviewing individual chocolates in a bag of M&Ms. That does speak to the strengths of the industry. After all, no one wants to dig into a bag of M&Ms and find twenty chocolates, five skittles, two pennies and a clump of cat litter. Likewise, if Nintendo has established a medieval-fantasy strategy series, it does not behoove them to give players “Fire Emblem: Banjo Simulator.” That’s good for players, but for those of us who write about games, the “if it ain’t broke” approach makes reviews a little difficult to write.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones - scooby doo

Zoinks! Scoob, what say you and I check out the kitchen instead?

It’s a fairly simplistic strategy game that reminds me either of Shining Force on the Sega Genesis or a game of chess played on the back of a speeding jet ski. Characters have classes such as knight, archer, paladin, mage, dancer, or insurance claims adjuster, and march into battle with nothing but their unique stats, a few class-specific characteristics (pegasus knights can fly over mountains, for example), and an assortment of weapons crafted from high-quality candy glass so that they’ll shatter after a handful of uses. Victory goes to whichever army can successfully bludgeon the gate keeper, enemy general, or living daylights out of everyone on the other team.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones-Dragonlance

Laurana, Tasslehoff and Flint will come by to pick it up later.

The story opens on a continent comprised of several kingdoms, one republic, one empire, and zero confusion about who the evil invading power will be based on the Star Wars rule of fantasy clichés. The Empire of Grado starts conquering neighboring kingdoms for no purpose other than to smash their family jewels (literally) in order to set free a long imprisoned demon king. I could make a joke about those motives being so cartoonishly villainous that its like congressmen pitching poor people into piles of burning coal just to speed up global warming, but honestly our current government daily bemoans the lack of trains in this day and age because it reduces the efficiency of tying girls to railroad tracks. Donald Trump is just a handlebar moustache away from being a cartoon villain himself. As for Fire Emblem’s primary antagonist, we get a young prince who can’t decide whether or not he’s possessed by the demon king, controlled by the demon king, or just envious of the hero, so we spend the entire second act of the game chasing around a kid more indecisive than a college student with identity issues who’s on the verge of changing his major for the third time.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones-Lyon Bad-touches Ephraim

Ephraim experiences “bad touch” with his childhood friend.

The Sacred Stones ramps up the difficulty compared to Shadow Dragon by limiting funding and weapons and replacing them with enough enemies to make the Battle of Pelennor Fields look like a fair fight. Unfortunately, the game seems to have made one offset too many. In spite of names like “Steel lance” and “silver sword,” enemy weapons seem to be forged entirely from noodles of varying degree of wetness. From the beginning, I had a character who wouldn’t take damage if he played a round of golf wearing full plate armor in a lightning storm, and he found himself in good company by the end of the game. While it had its moments, especially near the end of the game, several battles felt much like the Battle of Pelennor Fields if Gandalf had arrived at Minas Tirith with a truck full of AK-47s instead of a socially awkward hobbit. At times even it felt as though the true challenge of the game was leveling up. Unlike Shadow Dragon, Sacred Stones did offer chances to fight outside of of the main story campaign, but the game’s algorithm for assigning experience points didn’t seem to follow any pattern of current level, enemy’s level, or effectiveness of actions, but rather seemed more in line with the effects of locking a chimpanzee in a room with a bottle of whiskey and a dart board.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones-Animal House Ending

Sacred Stones retains the series’ traditional Animal House style endings. The good-natured thief is the one who steals a horse…and puts it in the dean’s office.

Death, in real life, is almost as unforgiving as the girls I dated in high school and college. In video games, though, it’s about as debilitating as the check engine light on my car; it’s there, it worries me, but if I can usually go a little farther without completely bursting into flames, it’ll probably go away on its own at some point. Video game death naturally applies to all characters equally, with the exception of Fire Emblem, one character in any given Final Fantasy game, and that thirtieth guy in Contra. It is a rather unique mechanic, I have to say, because the concern for a character you’ve invested time and energy into can really change the game when he suddenly goes the way of your schnauzer who died when you were in fourth grade. The biggest difference, of course, being that you wear out your reset button about as much as you’d normally wear out your B button. Okay, maybe that’s considered cheating by some…in the way that offering to motorboat your female coworkers’ enormous racks might be considered sexual harassment by some…but I prefer to think of it as forcing me to learn the absolute best strategy for the situation. Resetting the game when a character dies. Not the motorboating things.

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Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance – GBA

Castlevania - Harmony of Dissonance-170603-232953

I’d take more pleasure in riding Death like a bitch if he wasn’t wearing his mom’s high heels on his hands.

Might as well kick off this year’s Halloween season with Castlevania game, everyone’s favorite horror series from the classic days of the NES, which has progressively become about as scary as some leftover beans thrown on a compost pile. Rather than focusing on iconic horror, pitting your character against beast after beast from cinematic enemas, the terror-induced colon cleansing films that gave people nightmares before they realized that Hollywood didn’t actually hire a vampire to murder their actors on film, the series has now become a practice in running Symphony of the Night through Xerox machine over and over until the games still play like the original, but the only monstrous quality left is the low resolution, which they have to hide by putting the game on the GBA. But much like the aforementioned beans, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance still has value, albeit not for its original purpose.

Castlevania - Harmony of Dissonance-170601-010753

Charles Schultz had a short-lived career writing horror before authoring Charlie Brown.

Harmony of Dissonance opens with the same now-standard explanation that, in a series with over 40 games, the earliest of which is set in 1094, Dracula’s castle appears once every century. I’m just going to assume they mean “at least once” so as to move on with this review without introducing some pointless, confusing, Zeldafied time line. The story begins with the only macguffin ever used in a video game—the kidnapped girl. Personally, I take offense to this idea, and no, it’s not because I need to get my kum-ba-yas on with my feminine side and rail against violence toward women in a medium where violence happens toward everyone regardless of age, gender or the size of their katamari. I just don’t think we really need a reason to go charging into a vampire’s castle with a super soaker full of holy water. Is “compulsive serial murder via oral exsanguination” not enough of a crime? Name one movie where a character says, “Hannibal Lecter might lull his patients into a false sense of security, murder them with his teeth and then eat their liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti, but no judge in the world will prosecute that. Now if he kidnaps a girl, then we have a case.” Part of what it means to be a “monster” is that people don’t have to feel bad about killing it. The NES games used almost no text and still told a compelling story. Symphony of the Night was great…err….let’s say decent…but that was because the protagonist was a monster as well. But trying to introduce a story to each Castlevania game just opens them up to questions like, “Why would the vampire who is constantly foiled by the Belmonts need or want to lure the vampire hunter into his private residence?” That would be like if I left a tray of sugar water near an open window, hoping that a swarm of wasps build a nest in my living room.

Castlevania - Harmony of Dissonance-170603-025451

Shortly after this, Pazuzu was called away to pull Professor Farnsworth out of the Fountain of Aging

Okay, so the story has so many plot holes that it’s only good for shredding cheese. But how does the game itself stand up? I would assume with much help from a physical therapist. Harmony of Dissonance plays like a cheap Asian knockoff of Symphony of the Night. It has the same Metroidvania combination of exploration, item collecting, and RPG stats, but it seems tired and worn out in its old age. Sure you find a bunch of items that increase your abilities, but you find a bunch of them up front and then spend a good chunk of the game wandering back and forth through the castle like you’re struggling with early onset Alzheimer’s. To make that worse, the game gives you two parallel, nearly identical castles to explore, with a few common areas between them. Speaking as someone who has grown accustomed to driving with a GPS in my constant line of vision, I felt like I had to check the map way too often to get through this game.

Castlevania - Harmony of Dissonance-170604-201711

Jesus fucking christ, the feminists are going to be pissed over this one.

Somehow, even though Harmony of Dissonance closely replicated a great game, it turned out to be a disappointing experience, like marijuana laced with ether—it could be the most awesome trip ever, but what does it matter if you sleep through the whole thing? It could be the protagonists. Alucard picked up dozens of useless abilities, like transforming into a dog, something you only ever do by accident while looking for the mist button. But at least they made him more and more vampiric. Juste “Juicy” Belmont—a discount Alucard rip-off who looks like he’s wearing bad Orochimaru cosplay—just becomes more like Mario. “You can jump? Well, now you can DOUBLE-JUMP! And now you can ROCKET JUMP! And now you can break bricks by jumping!” What’s more, Alucard explored a castle. Not a real castle, but at least the regions were named after things you might expect to see in an eccentric Medieval aristocrat’s dwelling, like the clock tower, outer wall, catacombs and coliseum. Justes explores the skeleton cave, the sky walkway and the luminous cavern, which feel about as authentic to a castle as the man cave, the produce aisle and the ball pit. Symphony of the Night had a clever, story-related method to obtaining not just a better ending, but a second half to the game. Harmony of Dissonance requires you to loot the castle for useless crap and shove it into a single room like you’re opening up an Ikea to compete with that lousy merchant who never sells anything worthwhile. (“What’re ya buyin’?” “Potions. Like before. Because your merchandise is crap, I might as well stock up on healing items that break the game.”)

Castlevania - Harmony of Dissonance-170603-215722

And yeah…this is pretty much how you beat every boss in the game.

As usual, Juicy has full access to (most of) the same sub-weapons that the Belmonts have passed down for hundreds of years. Naturally they’re a bit dated, but in the one seed of originality Konami planted in this compost heap is the magic system. By combining the sub-weapons with spell tomes found throughout the game, Juicy can cast some impressive spells. Of course, the cross is just a little bit stronger than all the others, so once you find one and mix it with the Wind tome, you’ll spend the rest of the game avoiding power-ups with more care than you use to avoid enemies.

Castlevania - Harmony of Dissonance-170603-023425So other than the bland environments, the dated weaponry, the discount protagonist, the plot holes so big it couldn’t catch a tuna, the difficulty broken by an excess of healing items, the lame and undiversified abilities, the bosses more from mythology than horror, the excruciating focus on feng shui and…where was I going with this? Who cares? If you need a portable Symphony of the Night, go play Aria of Sorrow instead.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link – NES, Game Cube, GBA

RetroArch-0731-192006

After having retrocookie’s background set to a scene from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link for maybe a year and a half, it occurred to me that maybe I should have an entry for the game itself. Zelda II, you see, has a number of notable distinctions, being the final game in the Zelda chronology (providing you don’t give yourself an aneurysm trying to figure out the official timeline), the first game to introduce a magic meter, the first appearance of Volvagia, Shadow Link and the Triforce of Courage, and it’s easily the most hated and least played game in the series because Nintendo completely abandoned the gameplay of the original to bring you Super Mario RPG. Oh, and it’s hard enough that King Leonidas could build a wall out of the Link corpses you’ll leave littered on the side of the road. But aside from the unfortunate fact that they mixed this game with 4 parts Mario, 2 parts Dragon Quest, 3 parts Castlevania with a shot of green food coloring to nominally call it a Zelda game, it’s actually a pretty good game in its own right.

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Link’s slides of his vacation to Easter Island.

The instruction manual describes the story like a heated debate between two Nintendo employees who couldn’t agree on why Link is still romping through Hyrule slaughtering octoroks like a burgeoning serial killer who hasn’t quite moved up to humans yet. Either an ancient prophecy finally got its act together, stopped drinking and sent its resume to Link, expressing an interest in a career of waking up narcoleptic princesses, or Ganon’s minions have put out a hit on Link, and he needs to stay alive long enough to get the Triforce, which I guess will scare them off. I don’t know. The game kind of leaves that point gaping like a meteor impact crater by the end. Link still has a hit out on him. If Ganon’s minions sacrifice him—which sounds as much like a sacrifice as giving up abstinence for Lent—and drizzle his blood over the pile of ash that used to be Ganon, the pig comes back to life.

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Fuck you, Nintendo of America Censors! Look what I got! Religious iconography! (But they insisted on renaming the temples as “palaces”)

But whatever the reason, Link sets off. The overworld map gives a top-down perspective, but unlike the first game, you don’t fight enemies on the map itself. Rather, you contend with random encounters. But unlike the jarring Final Fantasy shifts that hit you like the raptor you never even knew was there, these enemies appear as groups, wandering the map like a touring punk band, and if Link touches them he has to fight his way out of the mosh pit to escape. These encounters, as well as towns, caves, bridges, and dungeons, play out as a side-scrolling platformer. Yup. A side-scrolling platformer. Nintendo took the most original idea they’ve had since Super Mario Bros, and turned it into…well, Super Mario Bros. The side-scrolling combat is interesting, to say the least. Link can attack and defend in both upper- and lower-body positions. He can also learn a downward stab that lets him stomp his enemies like a goomba, or combine an upward stab with the power glove to let him break bricks above his head. But Link earns experience, while Mario doesn’t. (Although after rescuing the same damn princess for 25 years, it would be nice if he had enough experience not to leave Peach alone in turtle-infested waters. Or maybe he could put two and two together concerning all those kidnappings.)

Link also learns magic. In each town, he can gain access to an old man who adds another rabbit to his hat. Usually, though, they won’t just scrawl out avada kedavra on a sheet of paper and point you at the monsters threatening to enslave the world. Nope. Usually you have to do some chores. One old man lost his trophy to a thieving goriya, and I guess his high school basketball record is so important to him that he won’t teach the “jump” spell until he gets it back. Some requests make sense, like rescuing a child lost in the wilderness. But one woman wouldn’t let me in to see the elder until I walked over to the fountain next to the house, cupped some water in my hands, and poured it down her throat. Only two elders didn’t ask me to turn my pockets out to rifle through the results of my latest scavenger hunt. One gave me the shield spell freely, but I had to find the other old man, who had stuffed himself into a fireplace.

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If I had a hammer…

Dungeon items, on the other hand, are as disappointing as a bachelor’s degree in English: they’re time-consuming to obtain, completely useless, and only serve to let you move on to get another one just like it, but even harder to get. Out of the eight main items, six of which are found in dungeons, only the hammer and the whistle do more than create a passive effect, and only the glove and arguably the hammer do anything but open up a path to get to the next area of the map. All other items are used once or twice and then take up space in your inventory, like an Englebert Humperdink 8-track your grandma gives you at Christmas—you know you’re never going to use it, so it sits in a box doing nothing but preventing you from the crushing guilt of throwing out your grandma’s present.

Retro

…it’s not what it looks like! Unfortunately. And did I mention that this, faeries, and a “life” spell are the only ways to regain health?

The game is as hard as a Cialis overdose, and while you can continue as many times as you’d like, after three lives you go back to the beginning of the game, starting over in Zelda’s bedroom as though you’re trying to fill up a punch card to get your tenth burrito free. I’ll attribute this to either a glitch or a translation error, as the instruction manual clearly states that if you continue from a dungeon, you’ll restart from the dungeon entrance. This only works in the final temple, but by temple four, the walk alone from the start of the game is enough to kill you out of boredom, if the monsters don’t mug you along the way. It’s a good thing that video games don’t need realism any more than the beef at Taco Bell, or Link might be tempted to skip town before the assassins find him and let the princess sleep for another thousand years or so. It’s not like anyone needed her for anything until now.

Dr. Mario – NES, Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, Arcade, SNES (with Tetris)…

Fdrtitle

I’ve spent my life trying to discover something I could do during my days to play nice with society, while still leaving plenty of free time to pursue things that make me not want to hurl myself into the blades of an industrial snowblower. So I decided to rank, from least time-consuming to the most, some positions I’ve held in the last ten years.

1. Substitute Teacher
2. Part-time undergraduate student
3. Public school teacher in Korea
4. Graduate student
5. University instructor (3 classes)
6. Full time Undergraduate student
578,903. Private school teacher in Korea during public school summer/winter vacations

Oddly enough, you’d expect stress levels to go down as amount of time went up, but no. It bottoms out around “Graduate Student” and hits a critical limit as “Private School: Korea” and “Substitute Teacher,” both of which exceed “hurl into snowblower” for things I wouldn’t want to do. Anyway, to get to the point of this rant, I’ve currently spent the last semester as #6 on this list, with two more of those hoops to jump through before I can legally hold a full-time job at a public school. Unless my novel suddenly takes off and becomes a best selling, direct-to-kindle, science-fiction…yeah that’s not happening. So video games, unfortunately, have to take a back seat for a while. And to that end, expect to see a lot of games I can finish in a few hours.

Despite a relatively minor infection, the patient suffers more from the side-effects of the treatment. How best to minimize these problems? Use more of the same drugs!

Despite a relatively minor infection, the patient suffers more from the side-effects of the treatment. How best to minimize these problems? Use more of the same drugs!

Doctor Mario! Because the only logical career path (as opposed to the career path outlined above) for a tradesman goes Carpenter → Plumber → Medical Practitioner. I guess rooting through all those pipes qualifies him for gynaecology. I don’t know, though. I’d really like to see his credentials, along with Dr. Dre and Dr. Pepper. Maybe ask Dr. Evil and Dr. Horrible to review the accreditation. But legally licensed or not, Dr. Mario solved one of Nintendo’s biggest problems: how they can make money off of Tetris when everyone and their pet wildebeest had cloned and/or ported the game to any device with a power cord or at least two batteries. So they took the idea of chucking blocks made up of smaller blocks into a jar for the purpose of reducing the amount of blocks in the jar, changed one or two things, and released Dr. Mario. Or, rather, Tetris with shorter line requirements that lets you build them vertically as well as horizontally.

For those of you who haven’t played the game and find your eyes spinning at my rant, imagine that the Tetris playing field got sick. The game starts with viruses of three different colors–red, yellow and blue–chilling in a jar. Mario, deciding to fight fire with fire, chucks in pills containing a combination of two types of medicine–red, yellow and blue, one block on each side of the pill. If you get four of the same color in a row of any combination of pill blocks and viruses–the whole row disappears. Let me point this out to you: one virus takes three doses of medicine to cure, while two viruses together only take two.

Pushed by Big Pharma to prescribe yellow drugs for a patient not even inflicted by yellow, Mario now faces a major malpractice lawsuit from the family of the survivor.

Pushed by Big Pharma to prescribe yellow drugs for a patient not even inflicted by yellow, Mario now faces a major malpractice lawsuit from the family of the survivor.

The major problem in the game revolves around Mario’s aforementioned medical training: namely, he doesn’t have any. So instead of carefully diagnosing the disease and measuring out the correct doses needed to properly treat the patient, he just lobs whatever he finds lying around the pharmacy like the patient were a carnival game who if Mario filled up with drugs faster than anyone else, he’d win a Sonic the Hedgehog keychain. No, strike that. Considering the fact that you can’t actually treat viruses with medicine, Mario works exactly like an E.R. doctor, prescribing whatever medicine won’t outright kill the patient, but will give them enough side effects for a good placebo effect to kick in, preventing a lawsuit from an angry patient upset that they couldn’t get “that drug that House takes” to treat the funny looking spot on their back shaped like a lemur.

Coming soon to an iPhone near you...

Coming soon to an iPhone near you…

However, other than the cheerful implication that every level failed means a dead patient, usually from overdosing on irrelevant medication rather than the actual viral infection, I’ve spent a lot of time with Dr. Mario. Tetris gets boring after having constant access to it on every game console, home computer, digital watch, graphing calculator, exercise bike, car dashboard, DVD menu, dehumidifier, wood chipper, coffee maker and pet iguana made since 1984. So what do you do when you don’t have the free time of a part-time undergrad, but more free time than a grad student? Do what I did: play Dr. Mario non-stop between classes in Korea.

Lego Star Wars – GBA, NDS, PS2, Game Cube, XBox, PC

Featuring the stars of Lego Schindler's List and Lego Moulin Rouge.

Featuring the stars of Lego Schindler’s List and Lego Moulin Rouge.

Months ago I played Grand Theft Auto III, and hated it so much that I didn’t finish. At the time I had another GTA game on my shelf, which you may have noticed never made it to this blog. I didn’t just set the disc on fire out of hatred for the series–although in an Odyssey of the Mind style hallucination, I did consider re-purposing it as a coaster, a wall decoration, a tiny stage for pet mice to perform on, a projectile to hurl at my neighbor’s overly-excitable dog, or a shim to level out my wobbly kitchen table. No, instead, I put it in my PS2, which immediately responded, “Ha, ha. Funny joke. Now put a real PS2 game in my tray, would you?” I tried repairing the disc, but apparently someone before me had re-purposed the game as a nail file. “Fine by me!” I thought. I didn’t want to play it anyway! And I moved on to a more interesting looking game: Lego Batman. Which promptly seized up at the beginning of the Penguin’s story arc. Moral of the story: don’t buy used games at Savers. But what can you expect from a store that would chuck Mega Man 2 in the trash for its age, but then try to sell six dozen Madden games for $4 each? Yesterday, I actually found high school sports trophies, engraved with the names of the winner. But Conker’s Bad Fur Day? Burn it! Damn cartridge!

I want a good clean fight. No severing arms. No blasters. No Force grabs below the belt. Oh, and your droids. They'll have to wait outside.

I want a good clean fight. No severing arms. No blasters. No Force grabs below the belt. Oh, and your droids. They’ll have to wait outside.

So to reign in my tirade, when I pulled out the Lego Star Wars disc and could not even with a generous heart refer to it as “round,” I didn’t have high hopes of finishing the game. But as you can see, God does have a sense of humor, and he chose to perform his miraculous Hanukkah Game Technique to keep the disc spinning for as long as it took me to finish, thus forcing me to write about a game virtually identical to Lego Star Wars II, which I reviewed only a few months ago. So here it goes…

Lego Star Wars covers the prequel trilogy, but otherwise bears no differences to Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy.

Pretty good, huh? One of my best reviews yet. Oh! Wait! I’ll do it as a haiku!

Lego Star Wars has
No major differences from
Lego Star Wars II.

Special Ed...momma dropped him on his head...now he's not so bright, instead...he stars in the Phantom Menace.

Special Ed…momma dropped him on his head…now he’s not so bright, instead…he stars in the Phantom Menace.

But seriously, I should probably at least pretend to have some journalistic integrity (I’ll get it when someone starts paying me to write, damn it!) and try to say something worthwhile about it. Lego Star Wars marks the first of the licensed Lego games developed by Traveler’s Tales. Oddly enough, this rookie attempt actually makes it easier to write about, since it lacks a number of things that have become staples for the Lego licensed series. Characters can’t assemble bricks into objects to interact with. The Jedi sort of can, but only as part of their Force powers.  Also, you’ll notice that none of the levels have Free Play areas, places you can access only by bringing other characters into the level using Free Play mode. And now, a limerick:

Uh, Obi-Wan...maybe not use the Force on me for a while. That light looks like it might cause cancer.

Uh, Obi-Wan…maybe not use the Force on me for a while. That light looks like it might cause cancer.

When playing a Star Wars with bricks
the Jedi all play Pick-up-Sticks
The blasters shoot bolts
The Gungans are dolts
While the enemies all act like pricks.

While the other Lego games don’t exactly force you to look up walkthroughs, this attempt eliminates the need entirely.  It doesn’t really employ puzzles or more than a few secrets, instead focusing on a run-and-gun, Mega Man style of gameplay. The vehicle levels control well, surprisingly welcome from Lego Star Wars II’s underwater-shark-rodeo vehicle handling. It does result in a slightly too easy game, but they don’t exactly market these games to the World of Warcraft or the competitive Smash Bros. crowds. Beating the game in two days actually made the experience rather pleasant.

A 900-year-old arthritic ninja muppet and an 8-foot tall Wookiee, pissed off that he missed Life Day. I think we have either the makings of a buddy road comedy or an action cop drama here.

A 900-year-old arthritic ninja muppet and an 8-foot tall Wookiee, pissed off that he missed Life Day. I think we have either the makings of a buddy road comedy or an action cop drama here.

For licensed games, the Lego series don’t suck. I know that describing them like that equates to calling someone the world’s tallest leprechaun, or naming someone hacky sack champion of the hospital’s paraplegia ward, but unlike most game licensing, Traveler’s Tales doesn’t seem to do it for a quick cash grab, hiring three people to code the game and twenty-five to design the box and marketing material. Instead, they aim for humor, for ease of gameplay, and amusing moments like when Yoda, who hobbles at a snail’s pace, opens his lightsaber and becomes the God of All Ninjutsu. I know they all play pretty much identically, but look for a few other Lego articles in the future, since I can probably repair my Batman disc. And I bought Anne Lego Lord of the Rings for her birthday. And Lego Jurassic World looks fun…

Nope. I checked. Still no one wants cares about the pod race.

Nope. I checked. Still no one cares about the pod race.

…yeah, I just make my job harder for myself. Maybe I’ll have something to say six months from now. Oh, and Pod Racing? Still stupid.

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!