Final Fantasy Adventure – Game Boy

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I’m pretty sure we’re looking at Skynet in his punk adolescent years.

Nineteen Eighty-Nine, bitches! Now you’re playing with power! Portable power! Nintendo successfully shoved all eight bits of their classic system into the ridiculously oversized pockets of your soon-to-be outdated parachute pants. This was so awesome, that virtually nobody cared that the green-on-green color scheme looked like someone had puked on a jungle commando in Vietnam, and that you could only see it under the noonday sun in death valley, if the batteries lasted longer than the drive to Radio Shack to buy new batteries. This was portable fuckin’ power! By which I assume they mean either the power to strengthen your wrist to Popeye proportions as you held up the game with the required lighting attachments, or the power to turn your anti-video game mom into a hardened criminal who swipes your copy of Tetris for long plane rides.

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“If you put it just really simply, these violent video games are stealing the innocence of our children…” Which is why I have to steal my daughter’s Game Boy to play Tetris. Forget Benghazzi. This is the real crime. Lock her up!

Nintendo has a long history of innovation which usually lead the world into the realm of science-fiction ten or fifteen years down the road, but in the mean time they usually just induce stress fractures to your neck while staring at a rage-inducing red screen, require importing the cool stuff from Japan, or make you waggle a stick until the game enjoys itself more than you do. And even though we tend to remember the Game Boy more fondly than our first hand-job, I have to be honest to say that, like aforementioned hand-job, the fun was a little rough around the edges. Cartridges were a fraction of the size that NES games were, and with all that games had to be cut down, mangled and stuffed into cramped spaces, the offices at Nintendo probably resembled the aftermath of a game of Truth or Dare played by serial killers.

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She doesn’t like it when you come into her mouth without telling her.

Enter Final Fantasy Adventure, which as best I can tell is Final Fantasy’s sixth installment in its own series while simultaneously the first game in their second spinoff which ended up being either the first Seiken Densetsu game or the prequel to the Mana series, depending on how you want to look at it. (However you look at it, this game is striking evidence in my theory that Japan numbers their sequels using a dyslexic idiot savant in the throes of a grand mal seizure induced by a cocaine overdose). This game provides an interesting example of how a Game Boy game can be both amazingly good and simultaneously more gaunt and emaciated than an anorexic greyhound with a heroine addiction.

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Dr. Bowwow reveals his cyborg chocobo. This game isn’t weird at all.

Gameplay resembles something Koichi Ishii scribbled out on a cocktail napkin after downing three bottles of sake before sobering up to make Secret of Mana. The player wanders through an expansive world that stretches as far as the eye can see (or until they run out of unique ID numbers represented by an eight-digit binary code. Whichever comes first). The map is split into grids, with each of the 256 areas being roughly the size of an airplane bathroom. As per usual, the goal is to traverse through hidden dungeons and towers clearly designed by a single bored architect who knew he had a monopoly on the construction market, so he drew a square room with doors exactly in the center of the wall, pumped out about 256 photocopies, sold the designs, and took all his GP and skedaddled to some colorful, tropical island likely on the Game Gear.

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…I’m not sure that’s how that works.

Also present in nascent form are most Secret of Mana enemies, system of casting spells—albeit without adorable elemental sidekicks—and the concept of switching weapons to progress. As in the Seiken Densetsu series proper, the hero wields not just a sword, but axes, spears, whips, chains (and various assorted leathers and novelty condoms), sickles, turkey basters, weed wackers, enema bags, croûtons, medical malpractice attorneys, cocker spaniels and…you get the picture. Long list of irrelevant objects. Haha. Moving on. Your axe can cut down trees while the sickle can cut grass, and whips let you swing like Pitfall Harry over chasms and rivers. You know there’s a problem coming, right? See, the weapons don’t level up with you, and I’ve seen blind guys operate touch screens on drive-through ATMs with more fluid ease than Final Fantasy Adventure’s menu system, so occasionally the game all but forces you to fight with whatever weapon you need to cross barriers. You could look like Fabio and Arnold Schwarzenegger joined together Voltron style, but the instant the batteries fall out of your plastic Sword of Omens, even the cute little duck with bowl-cut hair is going to laugh at you. You get stronger and stronger weapons right up to the final boss fight, but once you get the morning star, that lets you harm magical enemies as well as break through walls that would otherwise require a special item, any stronger weapons you find only serve to mock you with their muscle-bound impotence.

Final Fantasy Adventure-170621-093725The game is unfortunately obtuse when it comes to objectives, directions, or puzzles. For a game that traps you in an area of no more than 8 squares at a time, methods to progress are harder to find than the Ark of the Covenant…and no one thought for an instant that Indy would blow that thing up. Here, I think I did drop key items by accident at least once or twice. Some doors can only be opened if you backtrack halfway across Antarctica to find one merchant who sells a specific item that you didn’t know you need. Some switches activate when you step on them, when you stand on them, or occasionally only when you turn an enemy into a snowman and push them onto the switch, as though your lean 80kg of muscle is no match for their 160kg of Mackinac Island Fudge. In the final dungeon I passed the point of no return and realized I hadn’t brought any keys with me. Far from being stuck, FF Adventure just expected me to find the one low-level enemy wandering the tower that dropped the keys, and that if I just left one of them alive before leaving the room, they wouldn’t vanish into oblivion like a dead parrot. Easy. I long for the days when I could just get lost in a labyrinth of rooms that all looked identical.

Final Fantasy Adventure-170621-110021And yet I made it through, though being holed up in the woods of Northern Michigan on vacation, I really tested my data plan’s limits in digging up walkthroughs and maps. Somehow I survived the repetition and the unintuitive puzzles and the inventory system that lets you keep fewer items on your person than Joliet Prison. The game did throw some fairly interesting boss fights my way, but wandering around aimlessly does tend to pack on a few extra levels, and with a side character who heals you whenever you ask, Final Fantasy Adventure tends to lean toward the easy side.

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As opposed to other plants that crave electrolytes.

Spoiler alert: the hero is the ghost from the beginning of Secret of Mana, and his girlfriend is the Mana Tree. Which means somewhere behind the scenes, these two stripped off their green-on-green armor and tuned up their mana weapons to level up their 8-bits into the hero from the SNES game. I’m tempted to say, “At least Squaresoft had the good taste not to show that,” but since Custer’s Revenge still has more views than any other article on my blog, I think I’m obligated to express disappointment in the lack of pixel porn in the game.

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Earthbound – SNES

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Police block off the roads…but apparently not because of the radioactive space rock. Hey kids, after you touch it, be sure to see what it tastes like!

Strap in tight, RPG fans, and grease up your frying pans to retaliate as I malign yet another classic game even though I honestly didn’t find it all that bad. I simply can’t help myself. Nowadays, as the indie game community struggles to understand that “off the wall,” while it may be profitable, only has a few degrees of superlative. I mean, when it comes to walls, there’s really only “on,” “off,” and maybe “leaning against.” (I guess there’s a few more if you consider “Now my watch has ended,” “Just another brick,” and “Dear God, Donnie, get off this wall idea!”) Yet developers constantly belch out attempt after attempt at one-upping everyone else’s off-the-wall-manship, until every game is so uniquely different that they’re all as homogeneous as every Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Madden title put out there. That makes it kind of difficult to go back and play a quirky game that was, in the 90s, a truly unique gem of quirkiness. And it was also kinda bad.

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The game has a twenty-year-old reputation for charming its players.

Earthbound is an urban RPG that doesn’t so much have a plot as a Rube Goldberg machine of events that leads our suspiciously unquestioning protagonist through a world of oddities that would make any sane person wonder if that mushroom we fought just outside the first town didn’t have its own special brand of magic. The game starts like plenty of other games, with some poor unfortunate protagonist getting roused out of a sound sleep. In this case, Ness is woken up by a knock at the door, only to find it’s his neighbor, Pokey, whose adjectival name describes something painful and penetrative on account of him being both a fucking prick and a pain in the ass. The two take off in the middle of the night to investigate a fallen meteor nearby, which as you can imagine naturally leads to an epic hero’s journey wherein Ness dismantles an organized religion, gets lured into an ambush by a prostitute, bails out the excessive debt mysteriously racked up by the blues brothers, and performs a surprisingly gruesome abortion of an evil alien fetus (possibly), all while rampaging through the local towns smashing everyone and everything with a baseball bat like the delinquent gang members in Stand By Me.

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Halfway through, Ness just starts flipping him off, hoping he’ll get the picture and stop following him.

A lot of people harp on Pokemon for that whole adolescent vagrancy thing. While mom does seem awfully quick to kick Ness out onto the streets to give herself some private time with her soap operas while lying to school officials about his whereabouts, at least Dad routinely deposits money into your bank account so you can afford food and hotel rooms—although by the end of the game, his nonchalance about the fact that his son has half a million dollars on his ATM card makes me suspect some money laundering scheme. No, Earthbound raises bigger concerns. Like the truly old school NES games, characters for the most part have to be resurrected at set locations, specifically hospitals. Personally, if the same kid kept showing up as many times as I needed to revive my characters, someone ought to call Child Protective Services. At the very least, the hospital probably shouldn’t keep releasing their patients to the kid carrying the bloodied baseball bat. Even more concerning, every so often some bearded weirdo flies down from the sky to photograph the party (for the end credits). I might even be willing to overlook the fact that this old guy is following around a thirteen-year-old boy taking pictures if he’d just stop interrupting the game so damn often to do it. Come on, dude! Snap your shots subtly from the bushes like a regular pedophile.

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I lay down a fat wad of bills to bail these guys out of debt, but i still have to pay to see their show?

So I already said that stacking this game up next to modern, quirky RPGs is about as fair as hiring a mechanical engineer based on his skill with an abacus, so let’s put Earthbound into chronological context. Gameplay seems pretty standard, with a top-down world exploration alternating with first-person, turn-based battles. Character customization, for the most part, is stat-based and not within the player’s control, and while fights often do wind up reverting to mashing the A button whilst using your other hand to search for search nudeography.com for the Pink Power Ranger, characters include a small, but nice selection of magic and special attack items to keep things interesting. Furthermore, the main menu still operates about as well as a credit card machine in the self-check-out aisle, but it’s slightly quicker and easier to navigate than in other old school RPGs. All-in-all, this game has streamlined all the features we might expect from the original Dragon Quest, Phantasy Star, or Final Fantasy.

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…seems legit.

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The moment Ness realizes that All Lives Matter won’t come and save him.

Unfortunately, that’s not the proper chronological context. Earthbound was released in 1994, half a year AFTER Final Fantasy VI. Squaresoft had for three years already incorporated elemental attacks and equipment, active time battles, summoning spells and unique, useful character specific skills. Yep. While Square was developing solar-powered, mag-lev bullet trains, Nintendo was unveiling their perfected design for the horse-drawn carriage.

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Here I am fighting something that looks like it was sneezed out of a wildebeest with ebola.

I do appreciate the quirky sense of humor Earthbound displays, and as I do enjoy old games, I didn’t so much care that the interface had been long outdated in 1994. But Nintendo could have taken some care to keep their content fresh, rather than try to sell us a bucket of milk from the “past expiration” shelf (and then boosting the price to $250 on the grounds that it’s “rare”) The game flouted just enough conventions to confuse me; being dead is usual a little more final than your average status ailment, so I didn’t figure out until the final dungeon that the highest level heal spell could also cure the common corpse. Magic spells get no explanation, and while items do provide descriptions that range in clarity from “horoscope” to “girl who really doesn’t want to go out with you but won’t outright say no,” there are so many items in the game for the sake of quirkiness that the player can get a certain type of fatigue for digging through the menu to check each one—AFTER they buy them.

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Nothing suspicious about a bunch of people shoved into test tubes.

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Wait…how much? Is there something you’re not telling me?

Limiting your inventory to the amount of items that can fit into a taxidermy musk rat can be frustrating, but probably the most infuriating thing about playing Earthbound is using the phone. Periodically, Ness gets homesick and will ignore the brutal melee in favor of plopping down and daydreaming about cake or kimchee or mushroom and roadkill sandwiches or whatever you told the game your favorite food was. The only way to get him riled up into a skull-bashing frenzy again is—and this one I can totally sympathize with—calling your mom. Honestly, what is it with video games that way to simulate things that I hate doing in real life? Worse than the constant tether to you mom’s macaroni (no, that’s not a euphemism) is the need to call your dad. The only way to save your game is to call your dad at his mysterious, undisclosed location and tell him everything you’ve done. He’ll then ask if you want him to write it down. Then he’ll rattle off the exp needed for each character to level up, and launch into a schpiel about your family’s work ethic. Every. Single. Goddam. Time.

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Because FUCK KIDS!

Earthbound doesn’t get by entirely without creativity, though. The game has one interesting mechanic in which damage dealt by enemies does not take effect at once. Rather, the character’s HP counter starts rolling down toward zero, giving those with the highest levels ample time to tell their wives goodbye, pass on their watch to their son, choke out the secret location of the hidden treasure, grail, or Skywalker, set their affairs in order and make peace with their god before they ring down the curtain and join the choir invisible. Mostly, though, I used it to wreak furious vengeance upon he who wronged me, and occasionally fumble through Ness’ magic menu with a Scooby-Doo-like grace, hoping I can hit the healing spell with my clumsy fingers, target my dying character instead of a dead one, the enemy, or a nearby rock, and cycle through the text narrating the battle like a combination sports commentator and a court stenographer fast enough to take effect before the victim’s final breath rolls over to zero.

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What can he say except “You’re welcome?”

While I’ve been writing all day and would usually think of some exhausted, half-witted method to draw my entry to a conclusion that I can pretend works, I can’t drop this game into my annals without mentioning Giygas, the boss of the game. I get that Mother, Earthbound’s predecessor released only in Japan, set up Giygas and whatever back story, plot, and motivation he might have. However, if you’re like me—re: only released in the United States—you don’t have that to fall back on, and even so, I expect my games to recap any important points from previous installments (when done correctly, that is the reason I could play through Shadow Hearts 2 like a fully functional human being, rather than navigate the plot like George of the Jungle). Giygas gets none of that. We are told he’s evil and needs to be stopped for reasons I assume are good but not quirky enough to make the cut into the game. But he gets no screen time, no build up, seemingly no effect on the plot, and no interaction whatsoever with the heroes. Even the final battle fizzles out until I feel like I’m just wailing on Helen Keller with a Louisville Slugger. About twenty minutes into an unnecessarily long, yet impotent battle, I felt like I should just stop fighting and start making him feel inadequate by telling him about the bosses I beat from other games. “Did I ever tell you about Lavos? Now there was a boss! Sephiroth and Kefka were both pretty impressive. Oh yeah, and one time, I killed God!”

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Dear God! Pokey’s mom looks like the Joker’s failed first run with Smilex. Was this intentional? Was she their first run at sprite design and they have a strict no-revision policy?

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Oddly enough, I feel like this one actually merits a bat upside the head.

Now, do you remember how I said the battle was unnecessarily long? The game pulls kind of a dirty trick here. All the damage you deal in phase three? If it’s applied to Giygas at all, it has all the effect of slapping Exxon Mobil with a $100 fine. You can wail on him all day—and he can wail on you—until the power company shuts off your electricity because you never went to work to earn the money to pay your bills. They don’t tell you that, though. Instead, you have to figure out on your own that one character’s “pray” command, a useless little quirk that I ignored all but the first time I tried it out, is the only way to kill the boss. You pray, watch a cut scene wherein all your friends offer you their power (at least Nintendo took something from Squaresoft), and then have to repeat the process eight more times. Then he just dies.

Thanks. Useful. That makes an exciting showdown with the ultimate evil. Let’s just take all the humor and quirkiness right out of the game and make players figure out that the only way to dispel the essence of evil is to kneel down and pray for a giant aborted fetus. Way to make a fun game, Nintendo!

Lunar: The Silver Star – Sega CD

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Quark gets the same look in his eyes when his grandkids remember to visit.

Lunar: The Silver Star Story Complete is an awesome game. The first time I finished it, I asked myself what game I’d most like to play next and decided, “I want to play this one again! Because 50-plus hours alone in a basement doing repetitive tasks isn’t the least bit indicative of Asperger’s!” I didn’t know much about the game at the time other than it was a remake of a Sega CD game, which didn’t interest me much. After all, the Sega CD add-on was about as common in the early 90s as blacksmith shops, and game remakes, even to this day, tend to undergo a process akin to dying your average Easter eggs. However, since the developer Working Designs chose a name for themselves that literally means, “Meh. We’re not quite there yet,” it probably shouldn’t have shocked me to realize that Lunar: Complete underwent a massive remodel for its transition to the Playstation. Yet this always raised the question, how good was Lunar: The Silver Star to begin with? As it turns out…it’s a game that feels rather incomplete. That’s two points to Working Designs for apropos naming.

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Copyright DC Comics 1958

The story begins with Alex, your average teenager living in a sleepy, boring, podunk, inbred mountain town, who dreams of packing his things and setting out in the world to make it big as the Dragonmaster (although through fierce competition for the job, most teens get a few auditions for commercials before going broke and falling back on porn before moving home to live with their parents). Lucky for Alex, though, his friend drags him along on an adventure to plunder some shit (literally) from a nearby dragon’s cave, and the dragon thinks he might have potential. So the bright-eyed boy sets off on an adventure full of people who lost their stuff and need him to get it for them, because what better item could a potential master of dragons and protector of the goddess have on his resume than “helper monkey”? I guess, though, even fantasy worlds need unpaid interns. So the fetch quests commence until a villain finally surfaces and Alex decides to finally get serious and track down the three remaining dragons.

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I’m, laike, totally a traveler! Totally!

Although I enjoyed the game, the hardest part about playing it is the realization that I write prolifically, publish a free, weekly blog read by about ten people, all while Working Designs made millions by pawning their rough drafts off on Sega owners. The game is so threadbare that I’m surprised they edited out the popsicle sticks and sock puppets used for character sprites. While I can make allowances for 16-bit graphic design, Jessica, the feisty beast-girl priestess, looks like someone draped a Statue of Liberty robe over her shoulders and topped it off with a molding George Washington wig. They try to build up Alex as a silent protagonist, but his taciturn disregard for anything happening in his immediate vicinity just rubs off on the other characters. Their complete and utter lack of passion left me with less emotional investment in the story than I have digging a spoon into a bowl of Fiber One. And yet, if one feature of the game let me understand what the quest to become Dragonmaster feels like, it’s the realization that slaying monster after monster for hours on end isn’t exactly a lucrative practice, be you fantasy hero or Sega owner, and I only had slightly more money in the game than I do in real life. Generally the point of “fantasy” is for real people to vicariously experience impossible scenarios. Sorry, but I spend enough time window shopping at Savers to want to do it in a digital reality, too.

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Yeah, this is something a hero would say that no one should be suspicious of in the least.

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Too bad the only practical use for this spell is pissing off rednecks in diners and republican politicians.

The game comes with its own cloud of early-RPG locusts. Using magic from the menu dishes out one healing spell at a time before telling you to get to the back of the line for seconds. Diverse items and spells pile up like mismatched tupperware, but have no in-game descriptions. My first inclination is to compare that to soup cans without labels, but since the only way to find out what an item or spell does is to use it and hope you notice some difference, the soup analogy only works if you shove entire cans into your mouth, chew, and swallow all at once. Spell menus reorganize themselves based on the most recent spell you cast and don’t even list MP costs, giving you literally no way to gauge how powerful any attack might be or what effect a spell might have. All in all, I can’t recommend this game for anyone with OCD.

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There are like six different kinds of nightmares happening right now.

About halfway through the game, fetch quests give way to another pleasure: spending more time wandering around the same areas than the cast of Gilligan’s Island. Rather than make enticing, explorable maps filled with hidden treasures more valuable than your average rutabaga, Lunar: the Silver Star provides you with maze after maze of identical corridors with no discernible landmarks to guide your way. Add to to that an enemy encounter rate high enough that Alex should have concerns about his buoyancy in Lunar predators, and the game begins to work against itself, naturally leveling your characters to the point that they play keep-away with the final boss’s helmet.

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These are the stories creationists tell around a campfire to scare their children.

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Alex saves the world, rescues the girl, and cures his erectile dysfunction all in the same day.

My suggestion: play the complete version. The Sega CD edition is like the raw food diet—yeah, there are some interesting ideas behind (such as Laike squaring off against Xenobia or the back story about Dyne and Ghaleon fighting for who gets to be dragonmaster0, but in the end they’re not good enough to justify the fact that you’re dining on something that isn’t done yet. But if you’re curious like me, go ahead and play the Sega version. I can say at least with near certainty that it probably did not give me salmonella.

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Okay, so the insane dragon skeleton is actually a pretty cool element that didn’t make it into the remake.

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That’s funny, I have the same policy for traveler’s insurance, roadkill and Microsoft products.

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I want to say something I’m sure is inappropriate, but I’m not sure if it’s because they’re underage or because they’re cartoons.

Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings – NDS

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Penelo seems to have gained some fashion sense in discarding her rubber onesie.

I’ve spoken before on how video game sequencing looks less like a chronological order and more like a dyslexic sudoku written over a calculus textbook at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and Final Fantasy certainly commits more numbering atrocities than any other series I can name. With at least 100 games among its main series, sequels both direct and indirect, ports, remakes, revamps, spoofs, spin-offs, spunk, special editions, not to mention animated features, Advent Children, that one with Alec Baldwin and Donald Southerland, and possibly the entire Seiken Densetsu (Secret of Mana) series (if you count that in the way that bonobos count as spin-offs of the human species), then…wait, where was I going with this sentence? Eh. Who cares? As long as a big, long, rambling list keeps me from getting to Final Fantasy XIII, a game which could have only been the result of a seizure in the middle of a hand job, all the better for it! If we can call games like FFVI, VII or X “strokes of genius,” then XIII shows us what a regular stroke looks like. Sadly, if Square had gotten to the hospital in time, they may not have gotten stuck in the brain-loop that made them produce two sequels. But today we’re talking about Square-Enix’s last-ditch attempt at dieting and exercise before they sank back into their couch, downed a gallon of whiskey, and puffed up a big fat cigar.

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Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings serves as a direct sequel to Barney and Friends. Seriously, what do you think it serves as the direct sequel to? For once, Square did a remarkably good job (re: coincidence) of taking all the criticisms from the original (er…XII, rather) and building a game that addressed them all. The result just happened to be a game that resembled its predecessor as much as Gene Simmons resembles Richard Simmons, but unlike either Gene or Richard, it ended up being entertaining and well worth the time.

The game centers, more or less, around Vaan, who’s been given a total character overhaul as people tend not to enjoy protagonists with the personality of a teenage barnacle. Once again teamed up with Penelo—who’s been given a costume overhaul so as not to spend another game dressed in a rubber onesie—the pair go gallivanting around Ivalice, leading their younger friends Filo and Kytes into a life of plunder and piracy, a life which tends to lose its luster when one ends up murdered by colleagues. To be fair, Vaan spends the entire game insisting that he’s’ one of the good and moral pirates, and that all those other pirates who are in it for the looting, plundering, pillaging and—we can only assume—raping and whoring—have it all wrong and probably just need to watch an after school special or two on the true meaning of sky pirating. Generally, this attitude is a moral luxury one can afford only if they happen to be close friends with the reigning monarchs of two world superpowers (and at least acquainted with a third). Since Ashe clearly has no intention of executing the people who personally handed her throne to her, this sets up Vaan as sort of an entitled 1-percenter among criminals, making him more of a stock broker with a heart of gold.

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But to be fair, he does spend the game doing the right thing. After stealing a self-driving airship that takes them to a previously undiscovered sky continent—which is now full of pirates who are discovering the living daylights out of it—Vaan befriends one of the locals and spends a good chunk of the game trying to kick out the occupying forces. So he’s kind of like the Gandhi of medieval fantasy combat. (I think Gandhi always played as a barbarian, if I’m correct.) But what kind of epic would this be if none of the villains were supernatural? So Vaan and Company eventually stumbles across a god doing some douchebag thing or another, and pull a Taken-style vendetta against him to steal back the emotions of people on the sky continent.

About a year and a half ago, I played Heroes of Mana, which I noted played like Revenant Wings with only mild brain damage. Well guess what? If you guessed that political tensions between North and South Korea will likely come to a head within the next decade, you’re probably right! But if you guessed that Revenant Wings plays like a more developed Heroes of Mana, you’re both right AND relevant to the conversation. The game is a fairly simple and straightforward RTS. The rock-paper-scissors relationship from Heroes of Mana has been stripped down so as not to throw in a lizard or a Spock to muck up the works. Units are grouped into melee, ranged and flying, where melee is weak to flying, ranged is weak to melee, and flying is weak to ranged. Most battles require you to use all three. In addition, you can assign monsters to fight alongside you, turning the game into a battle royale in Michael Vick’s back yard.

Monsters come in three tiers, and you can take five monsters into battle with you: one at tier three or less, two at tier two or less, and two at tier one. Tier three tend to be the espers from FFXII or the mainstay Final Fantasy summons who have seniority or tenure or something and therefore have to be part of every game. Fortunately, these tier three monsters no longer come into the world like a mad scientist’s first attempt at creating life from the emaciated corpse of a heroine addict with a heart condition. The bad news is that using one takes up the tier three slot, meaning either your melee, ranged, or flying units will have to rely mostly on a tier one monster. But honestly, you could still intimidate foes if you charge into battle with an army of mages, a seasoned cavalry, Godzilla, and a troop of boy scouts on unicycles, right?

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The game balances out quite well, actually, even if the good monsters get put away in the cabinet with your mom’s china. Battles play out nicely, yet provide realistic challenge that takes thought to overcome, and they have a number of win conditions from your standard “kill the leader” and “complete monster genocide” to more unique ones like “steal all the treasure before the enemies squash the bangaa out of you” and even a capture-the-flag type scenario. The one thing, if any, that I don’t like about the game is the characters. Although given ten playable characters, one ditches your party permanently the first chance he gets, which leaves you with one healing unit, two melee units, two flying units and four ranged units. Since flying enemies are neither more powerful nor more abundant than anything else, I can only feel there’s some racial discrimination going on, and in FFXII-3 we’re going to be dealing with “winged lives matter” movements to protest the excessive force used against anything with two feet off the ground. Really, though, while Fran, Balthier, and Ashe are interesting characters, there’s rarely any reason to use them, as Kytes is the only ranged unit that can use black magic attacks.

Revenant Wings is well worth the play through, especially if you enjoyed tactics games. I really appreciated such novel concepts as “using a plot that isn’t as confused over its identity as a gay transgender child of a Southern Baptist preacher.” Plus, clocking in at under 30 hours—if you play all of the side quests—it almost feels like it’s apologizing for FFXII devouring months of your life.

Illusion of Gaia – SNES

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Much like many in the animal kingdom, the ancient warrior of light, when threatened, will wet himself as a defense mechanism.

And now a game that needs no introduction…but since I have to write one anyway, I had never heard of Illusion of Gaia when I pulled it out of the $10 clearance bin at Walmart. Yes, it could have been a broken, miserable, unplayable experience that left me empty and soulless, my lack of satisfaction made exponentially more crushing with every dollar I spent on it, but I had to face the facts, I would never get back the $2.50 I had spent renting Mario is Missing, nor would I get back the hour and a half of my life I sacrificed for a trivia game designed for people working their way up to the challenge of Dora the Explorer. And hey, it didn’t look half bad. The reason I had never heard of it probably came from the measly 650,000 copies it sold worldwide, less than half of which sold in the U.S.A. While that’s a big number and I wouldn’t mind selling 650,000 of anything (provided it’s not something bad like indentured servants or square cm of advertising space via tattoo), other games such as Link to the Past and Final Fantasy VI sold several million copies worldwide. And since Illusion of Gaia is in the same class of game as those two, get out your dark hoods, sacrificial knives and grab a spare chicken, because we’re going to celebrate Illusion of Gaia as a bona fide cult classic!

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This is the most fun I had since playing the merchant in Dragon Quest IV.

Illusion of Gaia follows young Will, a boy who faces down swarms of demons armed with nothing more than a flute. And while that could set up an interesting Zelda-style mechanic where you use music to lull your opponents to sleep or pacify their hateful heart, Will doesn’t follow the path of the spooney bard so much as the style of Bam-bam Rubble. Gaia, the spirit of the earth, tasks will will traveling through the world’s ancient ruins to collect mystic statues that will enable him to destroy a comet careening toward their certain destruction. And the stingy broad doesn’t even offer so much as a “Heart” power ring. So Will travels the world with his friends, and we get to witness all his adventures, mishaps, the zany relationships between characters, the wonderful oddities along the way, and also the sheer devastation caused by the mystical comet in the past coupled with a dark subplot about a slave trade. You know. Good fun for a 15-year-old boy. The story is actually very good, a downright miracle when you realize it’s so poorly-written. Dialogue, especially near the beginning, reads like expository writing at a tourette’s convention, a collecting of disparate, unsolicited facts prematurely ejaculating themselves into the conversation. In one extended cut scene, Will announced that he’s starting to develop feelings for the princess. And then he drops unconscious with a case of scurvy. So the player has to let a lot of stuff slide, but the story moves along in a sensible manner like it should.

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Will defaces a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Chinese Terra Cotta Soldiers.

The game technically plays out in our world, presumably in the far future after the comet has pulled its Chernoble impression six or seven times, halting world progress and handing evolution over to the whims of Salvador Dali. Will visits several real-world locations, such as the Nazca lines, the Incan ruins, Ankor Wat, the Great Wall of China. Still, the game plays fast and loose with geography, as though the developers failed their world map quiz in high school and decided to re-write the map so their answers would be correct. The Nazca lines are no longer on the same continent as the Incan ruins, Europe is now a single city somehow located west of China, but east of Cambodia, and Egypt is way off in the Northwest.

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…good luck with that.

The combat system, aside from exhibiting a brutal violence toward band instruments, steals from action RPGs like Secret of Mana, while employing a unique system of leveling up. Rather than earning experience or equipping items, Will gets a stat bonus by clearing all the monsters in any given area (which he can only do once per area). With a limited number of stat increases, the difficulty in later stages depends on how thoroughly you can ethnically cleanse the earlier stages—which isn’t all that difficult, considering the generous head start that 16th century Spanish explorers gave you. Later on, the game ramps up the difficulty not only by making enemies harder, but by hiding one or two in each area. Not a bad idea, really, although it was a little frustrating running through the Ankor Wat hedge maze like Jack Torrence, playing a murderous game of Where’s Waldo as I hunted down the lone hedge monster I needed for my upgrade.

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Freedan fights ancient Nazca robot while a string of anal beads looks on.

Will doesn’t have to run around jabbing his flute into things for the entire game. At various points he can transform into the Dark Knight Freedan, or Shadow, the bio-weapon made from the comet’s light, in what has to be the weirdest metaphor for puberty I’ve ever seen. Freedan and Shadow are both stronger than Will, but each character has a unique set of abilities that will be required to progress, so like any troubled teen, you’ll spend a lot of time altering your body in order to fight the evil establishment. While Will can perform special acrobatics, Freedan can reach across long distances, and Shadow can…make puddles on the floor like a dog that hasn’t been housebroken, all three characters have telekinetic powers. While mostly this is only good for a. collecting the mostly-useless items dropped by enemies and b. making the case that Will is “the chosen one,” it can also be used to block most projectile attacks. Because the best way to dodge a bullet is to stand right in front of it and pull it towards you with psychic force.

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And I would walk 500 more…

I say the enemy drops are mostly useless as with very rare exception, they’re all gems that serve the basic purpose of Mario’s coins. That’s right. Illusion of Gaia has a life system. Instead of going back to the beginning of the stage when you die, if you’ve collected at least 100 gems, you’ll only go back to the beginning of the room you’re in. With severely diminished health. And any healing items you used before death are gone for good. And healing items are rare enough that they could be the subject of the next Indiana Jones movie. In most cases, it would be far easier to reset the game and start over from the last save point than to take the free life the game offers.

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The George W. Bush homeland security policy. Gaia does a wicked harsh cavity search.

But really, these issues don’t amount to anything that might dissuade me from playing the game. Some of the more serious crimes involve key items being introduced with a text crawl so slow that it sets off a bomb on a bus somewhere and an end goal so confusing that even the main character questions why you’d want to replace the natural fantasy world with a modern urban sprawl. But if anyone told me these flaws actually amounted to something, I’d probably react the same was as if someone gave me a ticket for jaywalking.

South Park: The Stick of Truth – PS3, PS4, XBox 360, XBox One

Kupa Keep
The world of RPGs is in dire peril. The once-noble Square-Enix has abandoned its loyal subjects and now appeals to the lowest common denominator. Sacrificing gameplay, story and style, they have heaped enough muscles onto their protagonists that each one qualifies as its own Olympic wrestling team and armed them with enough firepower to give the NRA spontaneous orgasms. Meanwhile, Nippon-Ichi floods the market with games written as though someone had copy-pasted a bunch of fan fiction pdf files and didn’t notice that the formatting fucked up. These games consist of one bombardment of verbal diarrhea after another that connect repetitive and clunky battle systems that work as well as an NES with broken connector pins…after someone threw it into the Grand Canyon. Bethesda offers us reprieves with an occasional Fallout or Elder Scrolls title, but these come only slightly more frequently than a nun and have so many bugs that the games require heavy fumigation. But in our hour of need, two warriors emerge from the darkness, standing tall over everything we’ve lost. Armed with nothing but their wits, a love for RPGs, and a virtually unlimited amount of financial support based on the success of a major TV series running for nearly two decades, Trey Parker and Matt Stone stepped forward to give us their role-playing masterpiece, South Park: The Stick of Truth.

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Beat up the homeless so they leave town. If South Park doesn’t have homeless people, they’ll look more compassionate.

The game gives you control of The New Kid, also known as Douchebag, who arrives in South Park just in time to be swept up in a long-term game between Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman, that more resembles a minor gang war than a 4th grade playtime. Cartman leads the humans as the Grand Wizard of the Kingdom of Kupa Keep (KKK), who possess the Stick of Truth, the most macguffiny macguffin ever conceived for fiction. Whoever controls the Stick, they say, controls the universe. You’d think that control of the universe would include the power to keep the KKK’s rival faction, the Drow Elves, from stealing the Stick. But of course that’s the first thing that happens, giving Douchebag the impetus to begin his quest.

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The Grand Wizard of the KKK, using fire to smite his foes.

It’s sad for me to say this, but a game that lets you fart into your hand and throw it at enemies is better than anything that Square-Enix has put out in at least ten years. But it happens. Frequently, actually. Because parodies have to be so tuned into the tropes, characteristics, and weaknesses of their genre, they often become paragons of what they’re mocking. When I first saw the Venture Bros., I felt like re-watching Johnny Quest, only to find out the series developed plot less than an episode of Scooby Doo and oozed enough racial superiority to bleach the Klan’s linens. I’ve read that Parker and Stone are huge fans of classic RPGs, which goes a long way to explaining why so many elements that frustrate players don’t appear in Stick of Truth. Random battles happen only enough to stay interesting, and the type of enemies vary enough that you don’t get into the standard RPG pattern of taping down the X button and going outside to mow the lawn. Many games use backtracking like a bra—the padding makes it look bigger and better, but once you strip if off you’re left with a deep-seated disappointment. Stick of Truth, on the other hand, has a fast travel service, but I found myself opting to walk across the map because it had enough interesting things going on in the background. But this begs the question, if the South Park creators know what players want because they are fans of RPGs, what exactly do full-time game developers do for fun?

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The game focuses heavily on story and plays like an extended episode of South Park. Playing to their strengths as writers, Parker and Stone have found new and interesting ways to incorporate their brand of humor that should have gone stale in 1998. They do avoid their usual satirical style, most likely so that the game has a shelf life longer than grocery store sushi, but do rely heavily on social media trends like Facebook and Twitter. They also center a quest around Al Gore’s search for Manbearpig, their rather embarrassing comment on climate change denial, but I can forgive this. Like drunken antics at a college party, we can look back and admit something might not have been a good idea, but was still funny as hell.

Butters

If there’s one complaint I have about the game—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—it’s the overly complicated fart mechanics. Trying to pass its gas off as a magic system, farting works more akin to Skyrim’s dragon shouts. Each of the four flatulent skills you learn requires a specific combination of inputs with the right and left control sticks. Holding the right stick in the down or up position allows you to change direction, tune a frequency, or steer with the left control stick, and you can let rip your attack, unleashing chemical warfare in the form of deadly gases, by changing direction with the right stick at the right moment. Farting in the Stick of Truth demands precision, the type you need to throw a hadouken fireball while tuning radio dials, adjusting rabbit ear antennas, and filing your taxes all at the same time. Fortunately, the game only requires you to fart in one or two battles, and it’s a lot easier to do it on the map, so I didn’t have to worry.

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Yup. This is happening. And it’s a GOOD game, remember.

There are other problems, to be sure. The game feels too short, and a little sparse on available quests. You have companion characters to use in battle, the four main stars, Butters and Jimmy, but halfway through the game, they kind of peter out and don’t help much in battle other than to use items. But that problem corrects itself by making the game progressively easier as you learn how to use the battle system, eliminating most of the challenge even on the highest difficulty setting. But still, I can’t praise this game highly enough. It shows us what PS3 era RPGs could have been, if only game developers weren’t sitting around like corporate monkeys, throwing their feces at traditional players in hopes of selling something to any moron with an xBox and a copy of FIFA 2013. The industry’s behavior almost sounds like an episode of South Park…

Summons

Brandish – SNES

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In the same way that getting shot develops an ability to withstand bullets.

I suppose I commonly stretch the definition of “retro” on this blog. A lot of what I review isn’t retro at all; Wii, PS3…books. Honestly, I’m starting to feel like a myopic hipster, clinging to the good old days of blackberries and flip phones and rejecting the ever-so-trendy man-bun-lumbersexual look in favor of coiffing my hair to resemble a freshly frosted cupcake / toothpaste advertisement / steaming dog shit resting atop my head. The point being, if I’m trying to reach into the past while only grabbing things I can reach from the couch, I’m doing it wrong. In my defense, it’s easier to go out and buy games for the Wii or the PS3—much in the same way it’s easier to buy an iPhone than a hand-cranked Victrola—but I have to remember my roots periodically so as not to get carried away. One root to remember involves an SNES game I rented one weekend in high school and completed 75% before I had to return it. Well, it may have taken me nearly two decades to get around to it, but I finally finished the SNES…uh, classic?…Brandish.

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…I don’t know. It might be worth it to let her catch me.

An adventure RPG, Brandish opens with a story of a greedy king transformed into a monster before the powers that be decide to punish all the innocents in the kingdom (No, I’m not talking about a Trump presidency) by burying the entire land deep in the earth. And then everyone forgets about it, so really, have we lost anything? I mean, if New York were to vanish off the face of the planet, you can bet that even Texas would put that in their textbooks until doomsday. South Dakota, on the other hand, could be gone already and none of us would know about it for decades. Thousands of years in the future (in Brandish, not Dakota), the player-character, Varik, is being chased by Alexis, a blond sorceress wearing traditional high-level fantasy armor who wants to kill him for “destroying [her] teacher,” a plot point that ends up as thoroughly as the rationale behind making a Tetris movie. Their fight opens up a hole in the ground and the two fall to the deepest point of a 45-floor labyrinth, fortunately avoiding impaling themselves on all those high-level monsters and…you know…floors…closer to the surface. Because damn it, that’s how this works!

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Fuckin’ sphinxes. They’re like rats, infesting the labyrinth and leaving their “riddles” all over the place for you to step in.

Varik then proceeds to explore his way to the surface through a top-down perspective, and before I go any further, I need to address something. You may notice upon taking your first steps, that you can only move forward and backward, and that any attempts to turn left or right induce a nauseating change of scenery. Well, apparently the developers couldn’t be bothered to animate sprites for moving side-to-side or toward the player. I guess rather than change direction, it was easier to make the entire map rotate 90 degrees to one side. Fortunately, when the mighty dragon sunk the kingdom, he installed a few ball-bearing casters so the residents wouldn’t have to worry about silly things like turning. There’s a reason no other game has controls that fucked up; it’s because people who think like that can’t make it to work because they get stuck at intersections waiting for the road to turn. Congratulations! You took tank controls, a design scheme that frustrates players by making them feel like they’re guiding a drunken sorority girl to the bathroom to puke, and simulated the puking experience for the player as well. It turns out that the game is a port of a computer game from 1991, so that may have had something to do with it, and I did figure out that you could strafe from side to side by holding L or R. Still, developers, can we just consider “character moves in direction pushed on D-pad” to be both public domain and a mechanic that doesn’t need improvement? Anything weirder than that, and players are going to accept it about as well as a Neo-Nazi at an NAACP convention.

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What do you mean there’s no ethnic diversity in fantasy? That dragon clearly has a Cthulu somewhere in his family tree.

Beyond that—but don’t get me wrong, that’s a pretty significant “that”–I’d say Brandish could be considered a hidden gem for the SNES. It does get a lot of things “right” for the genre; labyrinth full of monsters, useful items and magic, challenging yet logical puzzles, and a surprisingly healthy system of commerce for a lost civilization full of vicious bloodthirsty monsters and a handful of shop keepers. The gameplay centers around making your way through the labyrinth, but every floor manages to find some unique feature to introduce, so even though my eyes wound themselves together like a case of testicular torsion in my head, I never felt the game was slow-paced or repetitive. It was kind of like being in the movie Labyrinth. Except the labyrinth is underground. And there aren’t any muppets. And Sarah is replaced with a man in armor. And David Bowie is actually a Lovecraftian monster that shoots fire from his…let’s go with “appendages,” and Hoggle is a fiery, magic-wielding sex kitten…okay, so it’s nothing like Labyrinth. But it has a nice, adventurous feel to it nonetheless.

Some boss fights are hellishly difficult, a problem augmented by the fact that all the swords you find seem to be forged with the highest quality peanut brittle, and a lot of monsters are either resistant to magic, or it outright slides off of them like they’ve been heavily varnished. The game offsets this by allowing you to save whenever you like. I recommend you save often, but even with the best of precautions, be prepared to become as familiar with the logos and title sequence like a pole is with a stripper’s thighs.

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“How is the game?” “Lobsterrific!”

The one other aspect of this game that irritates me like a pair of boxers made from the prickly side of Velcro strips is the menu interface. The select button opens the menu, which freezes certain functions like attacking or defending. The game keeps going to let you do things like cast magic or drink health potions without needing to equip the item, but at certain critical moments when your skin is bursting at the seams and you’re about to spill messy innards all over the floor, you may literally not be able to go on unless you drink that potion. I may be spoiled by all those other games where the monsters take their legally mandated 15-minute break whenever you call a time out to root through your sack of accumulated crap, but I find it just downright rude if an enemy doesn’t shut off the flame thrower long enough for me to rub on some burn ointment. Even more obnoxious are level-up text boxes. These things will pop up whenever you gain a level, increase your arm strength or your knowledge, or improve your magic endurance. And it also disables certain functions until it goes away. I really do believe it’s important to celebrate the small things in life, but honestly I’d rather wait until the giant lobster I’ve been hacking to pieces is wounded enough to lose consciousness (at the lest) before I raise a glass in a toast to my newfound ability to not feel quite as bad when giant lobsters remove my kidneys.

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Uhh…do you really have to look at me that way when you say that?