Final Fantasy XII – International Zodiac Job System – PS2

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Cactoid dance!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes – SNES ROM Hack

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L’chaim!

One common lament I often hear wailing from the insincere lips of our species, Homo Obliviosa, criticizes books, literature, television, and within five years, I guarantee those game-show infomercials that play on the pumps at gas stations, for being too predictable and not having a shred of originality that they didn’t pick up at a yard sale somewhere. Still, if we’ve learned anything from seven Saw films, twelve Friday the 13th movies, The Land Before Time 14, the entire James Bond series, and 27 years of watching Debbie gyrating her aging pelvis across Texas until she files her bones into a fine powder, we’ve learned that Americans have a serious problem when it comes to sequels. And sequels don’t even do it for us anymore; our problem has spread like a raging yeast infection to cover things like adaptations, novelizations, novelizations of adaptations, and fan fiction. Personally, I’ve never finished a story and thought, “I need to fix this so Hermione marries Malfoy and Hagrid ends up with Dumbledore!” or felt that I couldn’t really judge Star Wars until I read about how some 35-year-old McDonald’s assistant shift manager would have destroyed the Sith, brought balance to the Force, and made passionate love to Queen Amidala. But a fan-made adaptation has come along once or twice (no wait…twice. Exactly twice) that makes me take note, and so with a heavy heart, I introduce you to Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes.

 

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They were going to go with “Time Lord,” but the phone booth ruined the epic showdown feel.

A team of devoted fans produced Crimson Echoes after compiling everything they knew about Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, hacking the SNES rom for six years, and presumably smoking so much weed that they felt implying a romance between Frog and Ayla wouldn’t come across as weird and out-of-character as Gollum shacking up with Galadriel. The story weaves together several plots, including a war between Porre and Guardia, Magus’ search for Schala, Dalton’s quest to find new and more creative ways of being a major douche while demonstrating all the power of crystal therapy after a viking raid, and some weird jazz about alternate timelines. King Zeal emerges from the shadows as the primary antagonist, who aims to resurrect the kingdom after his ex-wife gained custody of it and ran it into the ground (literally) in the first game.

 

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Yet somehow I still have all of the other me’s memories and skills.

Chrono Trigger rocks, and I can understand wanting more of it, but a game with a setting that spans “all of history” leaves about as much room for more as a fat guy with a lifetime pass to Old Country Buffet. Writing a sequel to a time-travel game has to carefully weave in the events of the previous game–a la Back to the Future Part II–or it looks like the heroes spent the whole quest to fight the god of hedgehogs oblivious to all the other action going on. “Fuck you, fans of the first game,” it says. “You should have been paying attention!” For better or worse, though, it works, as the developers understand the literary mechanics of time travel about as well as a teenage boy with Asperger’s Syndrome understands a speed-dating event. “Marty!” I hear doc Brown’s voice saying, “You’re not thinking fourth-dimensionally!” They get points for trying new ideas, but their idea of extra timelines gives the impression that time flows normally, centered around Crono, and these other timelines are just tacked on in weird succession, like a video editor with ADHD (God, I’m being just brutal to people with disabilities in this paragraph.) Time Travel feels more geographical than fourth dimensional, as if 65,000,000 B.C. lies just past the Wisconsin border.

 

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Apparently the guy designing backgrounds was sick that day.

I’ve played through Chrono Trigger probably fifty times in my life and seen the Back to the Future trilogy probably into the triple digits. The thing that gets me stuck in an ever-repeating loop of irony is this sense of how time stacks on itself, about how, like a good party, billions of years worth of events can happen in one place (and how as the guy who shows up the next morning to pick up his drunk friends, I seem to miss all the exciting parts.) Crimson Echoes doesn’t give me the feeling of the vastness of time, or how it connects with each other. Whereas Lavos was eternal, living his life content to move down time like a one-way street, meeting up with our heroes whenever they felt like visiting him, King Zeal pops up in random time-periods as Crono et al. do the same, in a cosmic game of whack-a-mole. Furthermore, the three gurus somehow watching all the changes Crono makes from some point in the distant future makes about as much sense as learning about the life span development of a chicken by studying an omelette mcmuffin. Near the end of the game, the gurus dish out a list of side quests, but while in the original game, these added to the enormity of time and centered on the seven playable characters, the Crimson Echoes sidequests have little to do with anyone or any-when. Most of them are damn near impossible to even find without help, and the ones I did felt so fetch-questy that the only way they’d develop character is if you happened to be a labrador retriever.

 

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Travel twelve hours through time! Explore the mysterious “night.”

In adding to my swelling list of grievances, the designers cranked up the difficulty setting like crazy. For whatever reason, the general video game fan community interprets the quality of a game as directly proportional to how hard it is. God knows if you want to find a version of Castlevania that’s been hacked to remove life limits, you’ll inevitably stare down lists of hacks for people who thought the original NES game felt too simple, then another list of hacks for people who thought the first list of hacks didn’t successfully raise their blood pressure enough to burst from their veins like an anime blood-geyser. But when it comes to simple ideas to maintain challenge without tedious repetition of hours worth of gameplay, game hackers dry up like the Sahara desert as described by Henry David Thoreau and read by Al Gore. But even if challenge did implicitly make a game better, how exactly does one make an RPG harder? You can raise monster stats all you want, but the only thing a player can do in response is level grind which only challenges them to stay awake long enough to build up their stats. Most bosses don’t especially put a good fight, but rather wind up like a college drinking game, with the player slamming back as many potions and ethers as possible, hoping the other guy passes out first. For a while, I actually appreciated that the astronomically high enemy HP forced me to dig into my otherwise unused techniques, but by the end of the game, most enemies could absorb at least three of the four styles of magic (and Magus apparently has suffered a stroke in the intervening years, rendering him unable to cast anything but shadow magic), leaving me to tape down the A button and go scoop the cat box.

 

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Forthwith anon! Thou shalt besmirch thy honor if we henceforth discover…uh…something cool.

This isn’t to say, of course, that the developers simply chewed up the ROM and spit it back out into whatever arrangement the physics of projectile vomiting so decided. They added some interplay between Magus and Frog (who they renamed Glenn and completely abandoned his formal, pseudo-Middle-English style of speech), and the residual animosity actually approached something feeling organic. None of the characters are hidden, although Ayla doesn’t join until nearly the final dungeon. In another bold and senseless act of violence against the original game, the designers re-imagined the artwork, replacing Akira Toriyama’s  character portraits with new, updated ones supposedly reflecting the five-year time difference. Sorry, guys, but if you want to infringe on copyright, at least keep the stuff worth infringing upon.

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And saying this in no way alleviates any legal ramifications you may have faced.

Metroid Super Zeromission – SNES Hack

Kraid's Room Redesign

So I should apologize for the all-things-Metroid theme lately. For anyone not into the series, I understand that you probably want to claw my eyes out, desperately waiting for me to do Mega Man or Onimusha or…I don’t know…Nintendogs or something. For those of you who actually enjoy the series (or any series for that matter), you know that a good game functions much like a gateway drug; sure, it excites you at first, and maybe for a few times afterwards, but eventually the high wears off, causing you to smash your piggy bank, rifle your couch cushions and shakedown everyone you know for cash so you can branch out into similar, but harder relatives from the same family, trying to get that same fix. (Wow…once again, I compare video games to drugs. Maybe I should seek help?) But as I mentioned last week, Nintendo has only released five 2-D Metroid games. So when I’ve run through all of them, I have no option but to increase my dosage and spend more time in the basement hunched over my obsession, trying to sate myself. Eventually, trying to get that rush, I work my way up to speed…running, until all the time and energy I’ve spent on Metroid pay off with an aneurysm and I drop dead. They find my body weeks later, reaching for Trauma Center to no avail.

Oh! Behind you! Look Behind you! I told you not to go in there!

Oh! Behind you! Look Behind you! I told you not to go in there!

You laugh, but every three or four years, some poor, overworked teenager in Korea will spend three days straight in a PC Room playing Star Craft with nothing but ramen noodles and a haze of cigarette smoke for nourishment, and winds up dropping dead. I’d prefer to avoid that, so for a fresh, unsullied bout with 2D space pirates, I’ve resorted to something a little unorthodox, a ROM hack. Yes, I know that rom hacking only lies the width of a computer science degree away from fan fiction. But while I don’t exactly see the appeal in spending ten hours of my life reading about some ditzy teenager’s difficult choice between her torrid, wild affair with Legolas and her stimulating romance with Will Turner, programmers tend to keep themselves out of the story–often by keeping the story out of the game. So with a little research I discovered a highly recommended rom hack blending aspects of Zero Mission into the basic Super Metroid data.

And for those of you sick of Metroid reviews, good news! Super Zeromission has cured me of my desire for Metroid the way an angry father cures his teenager of the desire to smoke by making him suck down an entire carton of Camels in an hour!

Ridley StatueI’d like to establish first that Super Zeromission rivals canonical games for brilliance. While veteran players will easily note the basic data from Super Metroid, the hacker (or hackers) has (have) redesigned everything from the map to the basic sprite patterns, even utilizing some of the coding for enemies left unused in the original ROM. The game also drastically alters the original item acquisition order and adds in some new puzzles and door locks. This amounts to the game feeling new, something worth playing, and not just a burgeoning programmer trying to pass for clever by giving Samus an afro without actually changing the game.

...you bastard.

…you bastard.

It also follows a predictable logic. Let me explain; when I play a game, I assume at the very least that at least one person in the testing process has completed the game. And although weird stuff does crop up from time to time like giant ice keys or weird islands past the Archangel Dam, I can also reasonably assume that someone has solved all the puzzles, completed all the challenges, and not gotten stuck anywhere that would force them to restart the game. In short, if I get stuck, I can assume the developers made the game possible to complete, and that I just have to stop idling my brain in neutral in order to move forward. Now, I’ve edited entire books before, a process with all the enjoyment of separating beach sand into groups of different minerals with only a magnifying glass and a hand full of swollen fingers, and I’ve done it without experiencing the hulk-smash anger that washes over me every time I have to debug three or four lines of code. For a game ROM, not only does all the code need to work flawlessly, but it has to translate into a a flawless game world.  Games demand layers of editing the same way a toddler expects you to give him food AND clean diapers, and they’ll both give you a massive headache if you deny it to them. Players should never have to resign a game because the developers let them get stuck. I often got stuck in Super Zeromission. In fact, I’d often get stuck in small areas, where I could only go back and forth between one or two rooms, usually with the only visible way out requiring an item that the jackass hacker wouldn’t give me for several more hours. Still, rather than assuming he screwed up, I could rely on a second, more hidden, method of escape. At moments like that, not only did I enjoy discovering a secret more difficult to find than anything Nintendo would dare put in a game, but I knew I found it only because the hacker trapped me in that room. I tip my hat to him/her for showing more brilliance in level design than the entire team at Nintendo.

Chozo StatuesBut I also wag my finger at the sadistic bastard for his unnatural love–nay, his fetish–for shinesparking. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, after reaching full speed with the speed booster, hitting the jump button will rocket you toward the heavens, allowing you to reach untold heights and smash through speed blocks. Further manipulation of this will let you dash horizontally, diagonally up, or let you spin jump and start the dash in midair. In most games, running with the speed boster will get you through all the required puzzles and shinesparking only lets you access a handful of secrets. It also usually drains your energy, but the hacker shut off that feature. Why? Because as previously mentioned, he doesn’t want you to get stuck anywhere, and almost all speed booster puzzles require shinesparking. Lots and lots of convoluted shinesparking. While it made parts of the game feel like a platformer, I will say that it forced me to look up detailed descriptions of how to properly perform the maneuver, as well as how to master the wall jump. Well done, hacker. You’ve become that one teacher everyone hates, but has to respect anyway for actually teaching me something.

Fuck you, bitchtits! You fill your room with water and take away my platforms and I'll make a suitcase out of you!

Fuck you, bitchtits! You fill your room with water and take away my platforms and I’ll make a suitcase out of you!

He/she also has some interesting ideas about how to rethink the purpose for item collecting. Take the varia and gravity suits, which allowed the player in Super Metroid to access new areas, increasing your exploratory capabilities (thankfully, the developers opted for the X-Ray scope instead of the colonoscope). The hacker lets you access all those areas even without the suit, and usually gives you a way to navigate through them. He even goes so far as to require you to do so. That when, when you finally do obtain those suits, you’ll appreciate them like a burn victim appreciates the Klondike. I do like the way he/she thinks, although I have to admit that between playing through water rooms without the gravity suit and my emulator lagging to begin with, the game felt like it moved by at the speed of the film “300.” Even when dry, the difficulty  slowed the pace down to a painful crawl, and while I like the idea of worldwide locks that need releasing, but the releases gave no indication of whether or not you successfully released them. While I enjoyed the scenery redesign, it didn’t quite make up for the hours spent backtracking through a massive world map. Furthermore, the lack of walkthroughs online forced me to rely on youtube let’s play videos done by players who, to their credit, made me feel like Stephen Hawking by comparison.

Illustrating that a good game antagonist has more survival tricks than the Joker.

Illustrating that a good game antagonist has more survival tricks than the Joker.

The story…well, the story doesn’t exist. The game lacks any of that fluff we may call “plot” that the other games seem to like so much. Hell, even the first two Metroid games had instruction manuals that listed off a premise. Super Zeromission seems to follow the structure of Zero Mission, so maybe we can use that premise and assume this is another remake. Or since the metroid larva appears and Zebes explodes at the end, maybe the hacker wanted to reboot Super Metroid. I don’t know. I don’t think it matters. You fight Kraid, Ridley and Mother Brain, in that order, but the hacker recycled Phantoon and Draygon, redesigning their sprites as the ghost of Mother Brain and an oddly crustacean-like Mecha Ridley, both fought in the second half of the game. While electing for a non-kosher final boss seems like an odd choice, I understand the difficulty in writing new code, and feel like I should respect that this hacker has at least some limits. Every single boss fight, though, adds something to it that makes the battles more difficult than in Super Metroid. Spore Spawn lives in a room with rising lava–somewhat of a questionable move for a plant–and only the Crocomire can stand on the floor in his chamber, while Samus has to settle for small platforms. Kraid has no more platforms, and you have to rely on the ice beam to let you stand on the crap he shoots out of his stomach. But, at the risk of going too long, the bosses accurately sum up the experience of the game; harder than most 2D Metroids, but in a constructive way that adds to the experience.

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Play Online or Download Rom Here: http://www.letsplaysnes.com/download-metroid-super-zero-mission-rom/

So...replay value? Or does this intend to shame me with feelings of inadequacy?

So…replay value? Or does this intend to shame me with feelings of inadequacy?

So giant flabby monsters can stand on shoddy masonry, but Samus weighs so much she just goes crashing through?

So giant flabby monsters can stand on shoddy masonry, but Samus weighs so much she just goes crashing through?

Ridley battle

Why, hello there. Just thought I might ask, you know...how do you operate the console without fingers?

Why, hello there. Just thought I might ask, you know…how do you operate the console without fingers?