Heroes of Mana – NDS

Heroes_of_ManaMy latest foray into addictive time-killers is Angry Birds: Fight, which has glued me to my phone every time I get two minutes not immediately filled with something stimulating and exciting. Like many free-to-play games, it offers me rewards and bonuses if I consent to watching ads that try to pitch more free-to-play games which will inevitably offer me more chances to watch videos pitching more free-to-play games until they’ve saturated my time so badly that we repeat the 1983 video game crash while everyone on earth stares at their phones in wonderment of games that could be way more awesome than the games they’re currently playing. Alas, as much as I’d love to bemoan the commercialized state of affairs of modern gaming, the game industry has historically been as all-about-the-art as Donald Trump’s hair stylist. (Low-hanging comedy fruit, I know.) If you don’t believe me, pick out your favorite franchise, and ask yourself how reasonable it is that the in-game world undergoes drastic geological cosmetic surgery from one installment to the next. Sadly, the evidence that developers slap franchise names on games to help them sell stacks up like a life-sized Jenga tower, ready to crumble under its own weight and concuss you with its logs of disappointment.

 

If I could brand any game as such a “log,” Heroes of Mana would be a prime candidate. The game brands itself as an RTS, and while I have no qualms with the “RT,” I have one or two suspicions about the accuracy of the “S.” Set in the Seiken Densetsu…category on amazon…Heroes of Mana uses monster design from Secret of Mana and themes from other Squenix failures in development at the same time. Otherwise, the game plays less like a Mana game and more like a (very) rough draft of Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings using Mana artwork.

 

Heroes 2The story…well, they say if you put a bunch of monkeys in a room hacking on typewriters, they’ll eventually produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. Assuming that’s true, the monkeys will produce the Heroes of Mana story long before they ever crank out something mildly resembling a sonnet. Roget, first mate of the Night Swan, his captain Yurchael, and an assortment of poorly written anime stock characters (including such favorites as eternally optimistic cutsey girl and grim mercenary with a conflicted past) crash in the wilderness after realizing their own leaders set them up. Why they villains fitted the Night Swan with a mafia-esque car bomb, the game never really explains, but that fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as our intrepid heroes vow to halt the evil they suddenly assume must exist. Blah blah blah, plot lines in and out, a character who gets his ass creamed like chicken soup every time he shows up but somehow manages to inspire fear in the heroes, convolution at its finest, more characters than a story really needs to follow over the course of 27 battles…and one of the monkeys writing this thing must love cliches, because near the end they pull a Luke-I-am-your-father moment, which Roget (and the players) shrug off with a hearty disinterest. In the end, nothing is accomplished. Evil may have retreated, but no one knows or cares why, and the player moves on to story that makes more sense, like Moby Dick, or the United States Tax Code.

 

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This RTS game gives you multiple ways to strategically send all of the same type of monster at your enemies.

The gameplay follows a typical real-time strategy format, as long as that strategy is “select characters, attack enemy.” Units have a four-way rock-paper-scissors (rock-paper-scissors-lizard?) relationship going on, with a handful of units existing outside that structure. Ranged deals double damage to flying, flying deals double to heavy ground units which deal double to light ground units, and each time they introduce a new type of unit, the game puts you through the entire explanation again because when it comes to rock-paper-scissors, you have the brain of a goldfish, but when it comes to following the story, you are Albert Einstein performing a Vulcan mind-meld with Sherlock Holmes. Disregarding tutorials more repetitive than the ones from Dora the Explorer, I initially thought the four-way relationship sounded interesting. Unfortunately that all falls apart when trying to decide which units to purchase with your finite resources, as there’s no way of determining what type of unit your enemies are; just because they don’t stand on the ground doesn’t mean they’re flying units, and the fact that they can hit you from three squares away doesn’t qualify them as ranged. Heroes of Mana is just a dimmed DS screen away from being both literally and figuratively a stab in the dark.

 

Like Revenant Wings, you summon monsters to do your dirty work for you. The monsters don’t level up, but you get stronger ones as the game progresses. You also have a separate party of “leader” units, consisting of the fifteen characters seen in the story, all of which interact with Roget for a battle or two, then join your party and shut the hell up like a good subordinate tag-along. These characters don’t level up either, but you can win equipment in battle to boost their stats (naturally giving all of it to the same five characters who seem mildly more interesting than all the rest),  which makes as much difference in the long run as giving yourself a concussion to raise ALS awareness, because you’ll never take them anywhere near the fighting, since losing the main character results in an instant game over.

 

But even holding back characters like that is not a guarantee that they won’t charge headlong into the melee with their lone hit point ablazing. Of all the virtues of the NDS, screen size is not one of them, and trying to select characters, pathways or enemies to attack has all the finesse of a figure skater with the motor skills of an infant. Furthermore, since friendly characters refuse to step to one side of their square or to do that awkward thing people do in movie theatres and on airplanes where they try to make themselves as skinny and flat as possible to let people through, pathways get blocked easily, leaving the AI to take the scenic route around the battlefield, detouring right through the enemy camp. Even without clogged roadways, the AI has the IQ of George W. Bush with his head stuck in a plastic bag, often sending peaceful resource-gathering monsters on roundabout ways past hostile enemies, or telling dying characters to get three or four more parting shots in before retreating from the enemy currently making haggis out of your bowels.

 

Heroes 4

Precision tuned to let you follow all the action with only moderate permanent damage to your visual accuity.

There is one more feature to combat, summoning benevodons (the latest in asinine wordplay added to the World of Mana) to damage every enemy on the map. These are impressive attacks with exciting animated cutscenes that you will never use nor see (respectively) because they take up so much of your resources that in most battles you’ll never collect enough for the summoning. I pulled them off once or twice, mostly out of necessity rather than choice, and they all have pretty much the same effect, making them another nice attempt, but ultimately pointless addition to the game.

 

As usual, I like to include a “but the game’s not worthless!” section here. I did enjoy the game for all its flaws, and preferred in infinitely over Children of Mana, released at roughly the same time (and featuring the lame benevodon and malevodon wordplay…which mean “good tooth” and “bad tooth” respectively). As mentioned before, it reminded me of a draft version of Final Fantasy: Revenant Wings, so if you liked Revenant Wings…go replay that game instead of Heroes of Mana.

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.

Resonance of Fate – PS3, XBox 360

10_calendar_1280_1024After nearly a month of not writing, final exams, dealing with irate students, and jumping through legal hoops to buy a house with a yard that retains water like a camel with a bladder obstruction, I’ve just finished Resonance of Fate. After finishing Heavy Rain–which ironically now threatens to slide my house into Lake Superior–I thought a good old fashioned RPG would hit the spot and provide me with some enjoyable stress relief after long days of dealing with insane bureaucrats in exchange for a salary comparable to the average burger-flipper, albeit with slightly less job security. A word of advice–when a game’s timer immediately indicates a capacity for triple-digit hours at the beginning, you may want to reconsider going through with it. And about three hours into Resonance of Fate, I already despised it.

You can do her hair, undress her everywhe-ere! Yes, Resonance of Fate claims its Barbie Doll simulator as its most entertaining feature.

You can do her hair, undress her everywhe-ere! Yes, Resonance of Fate claims its Barbie Doll simulator as its most entertaining feature.

And when I say I despised it, I mean to say I’d rather play Pin The Tail on John Goodman than Resonance of Fate. Trying to walk through an actual mine field would cause less stress than combing through the walkthrough of this game. Learning the finer points of cattle enema application would not only interest me more than the story, it would also feel more rewarding and leave me with a more refined product. I have not hated a game this much since the first time I played through Valkyrie Profile 2. However, I realized that games like Valkyrie Profile 2 and Final Fantasy Tactics only inspired blood-vessel-bursting levels of rage because I didn’t fully understand how to play them. So I gave it a chance and spent some time learning the complexities of the battle system.

So now when I say I despise this game, understand that if any game deserves ritualistic immolation, Resonance of Fate does. I would rather bathe in a cauldron of bacon grease than go through this game again. If you offered me a choice between a PS3 controller currently running this game, or a bare, uninsulated cord plugged into a 120v outlet, I think I would suffer fewer adverse health effects from the bare cord.

Because who wouldn't want to dress like a second-rate high school football mascot and chuck toys at kids' heads? This game manages to take the color out of Christmas.

Because who wouldn’t want to dress like a second-rate high school football mascot and chuck toys at kids’ heads? This game manages to take the color out of Christmas.

“Pony up, Jake,” you say. “Stop whining and tell us why you hated it.” Fair enough. For starters, critics have praised the game for its original battle system, which revolutionizes the tired old menu-based RPG format. And it rightfully deserves that credit. A semi-tactical game–like Valkyrie Profile–I really enjoyed the complexity of combat once I finally learned it. But learning took forever. Players can access a virtual instruction manual while in combat, which I found indispensable; mostly because the sadistic bastards locked the optional tutorial. The tutor in the arena offers to teach you the ins and outs of the gun-based fighting style, but only after you’ve accomplished each technique at least once in battle. I hated my Calculus teacher in college, but at least she didn’t turn me away, saying, “Come back once you’ve successfully landed a probe on Saturn!” And if that doesn’t immediately earn it status as the most useless tutorial ever, accomplishing the techniques didn’t actually unlock the tutorial. Sega’s pedagogical style reminds me a lot of your grandfather dropping you into the the middle of Crystal Lake, telling you the dead kid wants to drag you under, and figuring that sheer panic will teach you to swim.

But since no one actually learns that way, I think you deserve a simplified explanation. For starters, you have two types of damage to contend with, scratch damage and direct damage. Only scratch damage really matters, as weapons that deal direct damage have all the destructive power of flicking safety pins at someone, hoping they’ll unclasp and stab someone through their jeans. Deal scratch damage to enemies and their armor by running (and nearly always jumping), and that’ll whittle down their health. However, it doesn’t always stay damage. In order to get it to stop regenerating, use direct damage to make it official. Think of scratch as writing a schedule on a calendar in pencil, and direct as tracing it over in pen to make it official.

Roll for initiative. Pass Go to collect $200, then proceede to the conservatory to make your accusation.

Roll for initiative. Pass Go to collect $200, then proceede to the conservatory to make your accusation.

From there, in order to deal damage effectively in any way, you want each character to run between the other two–which uses up part of a gem gauge–for as many turns as you can, then pull off the special attack, making sure each one stands as far apart from each other as possible with no obstructions anywhere along the path. Seriously…your characters can only run in straight lines, and if they so much as nick their elbow on a wall, enemy, or each other, they’ll drop everything and sit there until the others have also given up. Thank you, Sega, for developing passive-aggressive character traits in combat.

The biggest problem with this gem system–other than characters completely incapacitated by the concept of side stepping those pesky support columns–occurs when one of the characters receives enough damage to reach critical status. At this point, several things happen to change the flow of battle. First, you lose the ability to run or perform the special attack. Second, your weapon strength drops considerably and the rate of fire slows to a crawl, sending your accuracy down to the level of Stevie Wonder in an archery tournament. Third, the enemies usually start regenerating health at alarming rates. In other words, Resonance of Fate doesn’t just want you to game over, it wants to make the process as painful as possible. After all, it has three digits in the game timer, and it desperately wants you to use it all. Hitting a critical state led to an inevitable game over except in rare, miraculous circumstances. And it costs you, by the way. Just like in Dragon Quest, resurrection comes with a hefty price. Fortunately, you can’t do a lot else with the money in this game, so if you just keep all your items until you want to buy something, then sell them for the cash, you should drain your wallet to the point where restarting can’t drain anything else from you.

If the barrel of the gun makes the bullet go faster, then twelve barrels ought to make it go warp speed! And with all those scopes, you can't miss! Do a barrel roll!

If the barrel of the gun makes the bullet go faster, then twelve barrels ought to make it go warp speed! And with all those scopes, you can’t miss! Do a barrel roll!

For the record, once I got the hang of the combat system, I did sort of get into it. For a while. However, if the game didn’t already have a major strike against it for making me go back to school to get a degree in Resonance of Fate Combat, I rescinded any thoughts of praise when I realized that the technique I described above doesn’t change. Ever. Leveling up appears helps you minimally if at all, and you don’t really learn new skills or abilities. While customizing your weapons offers an interesting side-challenge, it improves them unnoticeably at best (and not at all at worst), and the dozen or so accessories available in the game don’t offer any unique changes to combat or even noticeable addition to basic stats. In fact, the Johnny-One-Note theme runs so deep in this game that they only seemed to use three colors for everything; white, over-saturated gray, and kind of a dull, whitish-gray red. And if Sega didn’t attain the pinnacle of blandness with that, they built dungeons as a series of square battlefields with nondescript, cubic obstacles scattered here and there.

As you can see, this scene contains two and a half colors and zero geographical features. The rest of the game doesn't have any more color, but it has twice as many features.

As you can see, this scene contains two and a half colors and zero geographical features. The rest of the game doesn’t have any more color, but it has twice as many features.

Fortunately, even the shittiest of games can pull itself out of the deepest compost heap with a stellar story. Unfortunately, Resonance of Fate doesn’t have a stellar story. I might stretch the bounds of journalistic integrity by claiming it even has a story. I picked up that they lived in a sci-fi steampunk world built like a clock. The three protagonists work as “hunters,” meaning they do odd jobs for people in this society that seems to have an unusually high need to fill things with bullets. The obvious villain appears regularly in cut scenes to wax about his spite for God, which games these days seem to throw in as though the singular ruing of God’s name will earn edginess points and rocket it to the same literary depths of Xenogears. Each person has a crystal, and if it shatters they die. Something about human experiments, which again completely misses the point of why other games succeed. And…I really didn’t follow it any more than that. If it did have any more plot, it lost me in its extensively long side quests and battle sequences. Spreading forty minutes of cut scenes over a 100+ hour game aids the memory about as effectively as a gallon of whiskey and a pound of weed.

Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (part 1) – PC, PS3, xBox 360

Yep...I've discovered yet another Medieval-y looking town.

Yep…I’ve discovered yet another Medieval-y looking town.

Captain’s Log: Morndas, Morning Star 19. Sixty hours into Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, I can see no end in sight. I occasionally pass the time by wandering through caves and fortresses, but most often I manage inventory. Encountered a bug today. Had to restart. Cost me an elven helmet I found after saving. At one point, I dropped my sword in some grass. Couldn’t find it again, so I had to restart then, too. Maybe I’ll walk around the map for a few hours. Perhaps I’ll stand in one place and jump to raise my stats. I don’t know. One of these days, I will find a way out…

Bethesda Softworks built their name around Oblivion. Or maybe Skyrim. No, on second thought, I think one of the Fallout games…What about Morrowind? I never played that. Maybe they built their reputation on that. I don’t know. It might do more justice to say Bethesda has risen to fame by making the same game at least four or five times. Kind of like Madden or Fifa for sci-fi/fantasy nerds. So you know what to expect: long hours of exploring a highly detailed world, accepting quests from a civilization full of people who want some random object in a dungeon somewhere, an inventory frustratingly limited by weight, and more bugs than the Temple of Doom.

Oblivion tells the story of…someone…who gets sprung from prison by the lackluster Emperor Patrick Stewart as he flees a group of assassins. The secret passage out of the city happens to go through your jail cell, and Emperor Xavier’s guards verbally decide not to close the door behind them “because it doesn’t open from the other side.” Because apparently, turning around and running back to assassins remains a better option than hiding your escape route from your pursuers. After getting sprung free, Emperor Picard drops a heavy quest on you–find his lost son and stop hell from overtaking all the world. You then do exactly what one would expect in a Bethesda game: you begin wandering aimlessly, accepting odd jobs from people with bizarre requests while giving a slight passing interest to the whole end-of-the-world thing every so often when it might not take too long to complete an objective.

Patrick Stewart as Uriel Septem, also known as "Sir Not Appearing in this Game."

Patrick Stewart as Uriel Septem, also known as “Sir Not Appearing in this Game.”

Given the absolute freedom to roam around the medieval fantasy world of Cyrodil, I immediately took in the sights, killed a bunch of monsters, wandered through what I would eventually recognize as bland, generic ancient ruins, and of course, contracted a horrible and incurable disease. I can proudly say I wrote the draft of this section in REAL TIME, as I actually “played” the game! See, out of all the quests in the game, the longest and by far the most obnoxious tasks you with curing the vampirism of the Count of Skingrad. And, for unfortunate bastards like myself, who spent the better part of a half hour adjusting the perfect face for a character only to contract hemophiliac porphyria, and to have the generic ugly vampire’s head swapped in its place.

So how does one cure vampirism? Well, considering the severe sunlight allergy you develop, you start by waiting indoors until night and then making a mad dash for your next destination, occasionally taking refuge in a cave or a shop. Asking around to the handful of people willing to talk to you without fleeing in terror or reaching for their wooden stakes, you learn about the Count of Skingrad, a quaint little village where everyone lives in lovely stone houses with reinforced steel doors. The count assigns you to go look for a witch who can supposedly cure the disease. She lives, surprise, surprise, on the opposite side of the country. Lacking the gypsy resources of Count Dracula, you’d better invest in a good pair of Nikes. So the witch asks for payment, which of course involves locating five extremely rare items without giving any indication of where you might find them. Then when you’ve paid in full–and advance–she sends you on the mother of all fetch quests to locate more super rare items. Once you have literally gone to Hell and back for her…you find out that the Game of the Year edition has a bug in it that prevents her from accepting one of the items, thus condemning you to live as a vampire forever.

Spent a half hour tweaking facial characteristics like a plastic surgeon...end up so disgusted with vampire face that I cover up with a helmet.

Spent a half hour tweaking facial characteristics like a plastic surgeon…end up so disgusted with vampire face that I cover up with a helmet.

Turns out, you can manage your vampirism, much like diabetes. Regular feedings will keep your photo sensitivity at bay, and people will gladly tell you how sick you look to indicate when you should hunker down in the mage’s guild living quarters until everyone goes to sleep. The bit about writing in real time? I got stuck in the witch’s house one morning, after twelve hours of questing for nothing. She wouldn’t go to sleep so I could eat her, and another bug in the game considered me a trespasser, thus rendering the “wait” feature inaccessible, and I had to stand there as the game’s timer ticked away to 8:00 pm. Fuck you, Bethesda. The entirety of God of War took less time to complete than this one quest. But no. I would rather sneak into a castle to pickpocket a key, dive to the bottom of a lake, search for the hidden trapdoor, make my way through three connected dungeons, and look for a random table, after which I have to locate a quest which opens a quest which opens another dungeon…all to get the one fracking ingredient that the witch won’t accept.

"Very Easy" my ass! Subjects of Tamriel must make lock picks out of pretzles if they break after every failed attempt.

“Very Easy” my ass! Subjects of Tamriel must make lock picks out of pretzles if they break after every failed attempt.

Due to the massive size of the game (which estimates online place at about 1036 km squared), I thought I should split the post up into at least two sections. So in a few weeks I’ll post about the remainder of the game (if Anne doesn’t sucker me into playing Minecraft for the next week while I prepare for the beginning of the semester). In the meantime, look at my estimated breakdown of the first sixty hours of game play:

2 Hours: Awesome world! More colorful than Skyrim…but not quite as HD.
3 Hours: I like how Cyrodil residents didn’t build all their fortresses and caves in straight lines…like in Skyrim. And look how unique they look! Skyrim seemed to repeat the same dungeons over and over.
0.5 Hours: Wow…Oblivion just repeats the same dungeons over and over…
1.5 Hours: So…when will Patrick Stewart come back? Did they honestly just hire him for the first scene?
12 Hours: Fucking Vampire Quest! Just let me go out during the day!
5 Hours: Fucking Vampire Diabetes! Should I even keep playing?
0.5 Hours: Of course I’ll play…I have an addiction.
5 Hours: Go into the cave to collect the treasure to buy the house so I have somewhere to put the treasure that I pull out of the caves.
0.5 Hours: Maybe I should spend some time on the main quest.
1 Hour: Oblivion! Hell dimension! Awesome!
0.5 Hours: Holy shit! The Siege of Kvatch monsters just won’t take damage.
1.5 Hours: Holy shit! I hate all the stupid, angry people on the internet giving advice for the Siege of Kvatch.
6 Hours: Shivering Isles? Score! It feels like a whole new game!
1 Hour: Looking for lockpicks after I broke all mine trying to open a chest that had six gold pieces in it.
20 Hours: Managing Inventory

Top Ten Best RPGs

Sorry to say this, but I’d like to take a short hiatus for a while. Oblivion took a lot out of me, and with the new semester in full swing and 90 helpless students under my care, I don’t have quite as much time to write as I’d like. Fortunately, since I’ve posted ahead a few months, I’ve finished Oblivion and a few Zelda games, so rather than just cut out completely, I’ll update every other week, and go back to posting every week after finals. Because unemployment. Hooray for part-time teaching work. Anyway, this also gives me the chance to try out a new feature, top ten lists. No pictures this week. Again, sorry.

10. The World Ends With You
While the story kept me riveted, the artwork kept me mesmerized, and the villain with mathematical Tourette kept me…well, really confused, but amused beyond belief, this game deserves praise for the enlightened trance you reach when you finally figure out how to simultaneously control one character’s movements and attacks with just the stylus and inputting combinations with the D-pad to control another character on the top screen on an entirely different battlefield. I think I became telepathic while playing this game.

9. Secret of Mana
A Final Fantasy spin-off game that replaces air ships with riding on a dragon and chucks out chocobos in favor of shooting you out of a cannon. It features weapons and magic that level up with use, and a combat system halfway between ATB systems and the Legend of Zelda adventure combat. Plus you finally get to put Santa in his place in an epic ice-palace show down. Leave me coal five years in a row, will you? It has only served to fuel the fires of my rage! I’ll have my revenge on you, old man! You can’t hide behind krampus anymore! You’ll rue the day…

8. Lunar: The Silver Star Story (Complete)
Sadly, I can’t say I ever played the original Sega CD game, but with the Playstation freeing me from the oppression of Nintendo’s censorship, Lunar took full advantage of that. With cross-dressing exploits, bathing springs, and dialog like: “Thespian? I thought I wasn’t the right gender for that,” Lunar pulls no punches. Ten out of ten for comedic effect.

7. Shadow Hearts: Covenant
Want to know how to get hundreds of views for a single blog post? Talk about its BDSM aspects and the dominatrix villain. Not that I want to downplay Karin’s magnificent rack, or Yuri’s perverted sense of humor, mind you. In fact, I expect that last sentence to increase viewership of this post by tenfold. But the game stands on its own merits as a beautifully dark, Lovecraftian, yet meaningful story told against the backdrop of World War One.

6. Fallout 3
What? You mean we don’t need fantasy worlds and magic in an RPG? That idea scares me! New things make me uncomfortable! I hate Fallout! Hate it I say! Actually, no, I think this game stands out as Bethesda’s gem.

5. Final Fantasy X
Hated Tidus. Loved Yuna. However, I understood the need for both characters in the story. In fact, I’ve never understood a video game storyline quite as well as FFX. If I could only find a way to force my students to play through it and take notes on themes of sacrifice, the role of death in society, conflict with parents, and religious corruption, I might not have to assign those painful classics like Moby Dick or Pride and Prejudice anymore.

4. Final Fantasy VI
None of the lists of the best RPGs that I’ve seen ever ranks Final Fantasy VI higher than third place, except for one that gave it second. I hate that. This game deserves first place! It introduced me to the world of role-playing. It provided me an outlet for my lust for fantasy when I didn’t know the genre even existed outside of Tolkien. This came out during my sixth-grade year, and I didn’t know how much it revolutionized the genre, adding in a steampunk setting, an ensemble cast of characters, and a non-linear second act. Plus, you get the world’s first playable moogle (not counting humans transformed into moogles or wearing costumes) as a hidden character!

3. Final Fantasy Tactics
With an in-depth story about class warfare between the rich and the poor, a war manipulated by the church and giant zodiac-apostle monsters, only a system of highly customizable characters with unique, interesting and versatile abilities could improve this game. What? It has that! Excellent! This game may have reached the peak of RPG perfection. What? Why did I put it at number three? Mind your own damn business, Torquemada!

2. Chrono Trigger
Blasphemer! How dare you make a list of the best RPGs of all time and not put Chrono Trigger in the number one spot, as is its birthright! Relax, I actually sweat long over this decision. Chrono Trigger deservedly tops a lot of lists, and for some reason, I don’t get tired of anything time-travel themed. Well, Doctor Who doesn’t exactly do it for me, but mostly because the Doctor has never stood up to anything nearly as threatening as Lavos or Biff Tannen. But still, this game has an excellent high-stakes story, an expansive 4-dimensional world, no random encounters, and a soundtrack that puts John Williams to shame. Plus I’ll always think of Marle as “The one that got away.” But at least fictional girls can’t reject me, dump me, or deliver death threats attached to jars of ashes. I love this game, and so does anyone else who plays it. However, it does top everyone else’s list, and I honestly believe one other game outclasses it.

1. Xenogears
As much as I love all things time travel, this game beats Chrono Trigger on just about every front. Yasunori Mitsuda’s brilliant score beats the pants off the talentless schmuck who composed for Chrono Trigger, and it introduced a combat interface –for both character combat and mech combat–that made repetitive RPG combat enjoyable much in the same way that shovels must have improved the occupation of ditch-digging. But the story shines above all of that, asking profound philosophical questions about the nature of god and whether his presence improves our lives the way we believe it does–you know, the same philosophical questions raised by seeing Tea Party Christians interviewed on Fox News. Except I actually enjoy Xenogears.

Honorable Mentions:

Final Fantasy IV
Both one of my favorite games of all time and historically significant for realizing “D&D plays like shit on a computer,” FFIV introduced the world to RPGs with plots and characters with conflicts and personal growth. Also they travel to the moon. Hey, I didn’t say they thought out the story, just that they had one. I probably should have included it in the list, but honestly, after roughly seven dozen ports, re-makes and re-releases, Square may want to consider retiring this one.

Final Fantasy IX
How do you improve upon a series of hit after hit (and then FFVIII)? Strip down all the old games, take only the good parts, put those together around a well-written story about finding meaning in life and death. Often underappreciated, I consider FFIX the best in the series. What? Why only an honorable mention? Because shut up! …yeah. Put you in your place, didn’t I!

Didn’t see the game you wanted? Screw you! Also, I probably haven’t played it. Drop a suggestion in a comment and I’ll hunt down your favorite RPG and play it. And no, I don’t consider Zelda an RPG. Not even the Adventure of Link. I had enough trouble narrowing down my selections, thank you.

Final Fantasy X-2 – PS2, PS Vita

yuna gun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel better for having seen this.

I feel better for having seen this.

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

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

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

Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars – SNES

Here we see Smithy at his forge, creating the Republican Party platform.

Here we see Smithy at his forge, creating the Republican Party platform.

Square must have cornered the market on awesome with Final Fantasy. Yes, I can say “I love those games!” emphatically as though someone had offered a roomful of people a potion that would make orgasms last fifteen minutes each, and they will only give the potion to the loudest, most excited person in the room, but I still might understate the effect of those games. See, people keep going to Square and handing over the rights to their personal characters, requesting they scan them, digitize them, and build a game around them. And this doesn’t mean any yahoo on deviantart with a thrice-yearly web comic about a stick figure super hero who beats up all the people who called him names in high school. No, Square has people handing them Batman. And Disney (which means we’ll likely see Darth Vader team up with Sora in Kingdom Hearts 4). And, of course, Nintendo’s own Super Mario. Apparently, Shigeru Miyamoto felt his favorite character still wallowed in obscurity after his debut fifteen years ago, and thought that redesigning his game into an RPG might help Mario find his niche.

Obviously "Mushroom Retainer" doesn't refer to a feudal warrior bodyguard. Perhaps it means the Princess regularly pays Toad for legal council?

Obviously “Mushroom Retainer” doesn’t refer to a feudal warrior bodyguard. Perhaps it means the Princess regularly pays Toad for legal council?

The game opens with the Super Mario Super Cliche. Bowser kidnapped Princess Toadstool. Mario goes to the castle to rescue her. Pretty standard stuff, and thankfully, Square only subjected us to that torturous redundancy for the first ten minutes of the game. In the middle of Mario’s duel with Bowser, a sword big enough to loosen even Crocodile Dundee’s bowels falls from the sky and embeds itself in Bowser’s keep, presumably until a titanic-sized King Arthur comes along to declare his rule over an entire solar system. But in absence of giant boy kings, the sword declares the glory of the Smithy Gang, and claims the Mushroom Kingdom in the name of Smithy. The force of the colossal impalement sends Bowser, Mario and Peach flying to various assorted parts of the game. Mario assumes a quest has begun, although no one ever really states whether he wants to rescue the princess or defeat Smithy, but both those points become irrelevant about five or six hours into the game when he meets up with Geno, a spirit from the Star Road, searching for seven star pieces destroyed in Smithy’s latest giant knife-throwing circus routine. Without the star pieces, the world will have no more wishes. And go.

You can't ignore fan theories as crazy anymore. Mario officially lives in a world with psychadelic amanita mushrooms.

You can’t ignore fan theories as crazy anymore. Mario officially lives in a world with psychadelic amanita mushrooms.

The design team attempted to create an RPG that still had the feel of a Mario game. As such, Mario retains his signature special abilities. Namely, he can jump, and subjects of the Mushroom Kingdom constantly request demonstrations and/or autographs from him. In fact, other than his basic attack, Mario can only either jump on or shoot fire at enemies in battle, and leveling-up only teaches him upgraded versions of those two attacks. Jumping in battle consumes three flower points, the game’s version of MP, except the party shares one communal total of FP rather than giving each character their own. So if Geno shoots off his beam too much, Mario simply won’t have the energy in him to jump, and will have to resort to blunt trauma instead. Until the battle ends. Then he can jump until his shins shatter without even stopping to catch his breath. While the game functions perfectly from a technical and mathematical standpoint, that inconsistency really marks the game as confusing, to say the least.

After jumping over these things since 1981, do you think you could help me out a bit, Princess?

After jumping over these things since 1981, do you think you could help me out a bit, Princess?

For instance, the first half of the game sees Mario hunting down Princess Toadstool and rescuing her from a bizarre man-child with the most severe case of Asperger’s syndrome I’ve ever seen. The game relegates her to the role of Damsel in Distress because, let’s face it, if she didn’t enjoy the thrill of a good kidnapping, she would probably have upgraded her security after SMB 3–if not after the original SMB. For contrast, the introduction to the title screen shows her sitting alone in the middle of a field staring at flowers when Bowser swoops in–on the same clown-duck thing he used to kidnap her in Super Mario World–and carries her off. After you rescue her, though, she joins your party and, despite fighting with stereotypical glove slaps and healing spells, actually shows a remarkable competency in battle. So, uh, Princess…how about rescuing yourself for once? Sound like an idea? Give Mario a day off and bust out of Bowser’s dungeon yourself.

Peach slaps the snake. Should we interpret that as a euphamism?

Peach slaps the snake. Should we interpret that as a euphamism?

Beyond that, Mario displays quite a few skills that would have come in handy in some of his other games. For example, touching monsters without throwing himself to the ground, screaming in pain. Maybe taking more than one hit, or having the ability to block? He apparently can shape shift, which he uses in lieu of language, but not for anything practical like a stealthy disguise or a hilarious mistaken-identity comedy-of-errors. Maybe, though, these abilities mean to offset his nasty habit of standing around in silence watching various major enemies escape. I mean, yeah, he catches up with them later, but why not make the game a little shorter and fight them now? At least the weapons he can equip show some consistency. Mario can use hammers, alluding to his days fighting Donkey Kong; a turtle shell, an obvious reference to his side-scrolling, koopa-stomping adventures; and uh…gloves, which hearken back to his ability to break blocks with his fist? Maybe? Or referencing his time as a referee in punch out? Super Mario RPG really excels at these nods to Mario’s history, which players of the older games may appreciate more than those just coming into the series in the last fifteen or twenty years (god, I feel old…they released this game eighteen years ago!). One room in the penultimate dungeon even requires you to leap over barrels thrown by an ape.

I don't know what bothers me more; that I only had a 10% success rate with three choices, or that they put "Yoshi" in quotation marks.

I don’t know what bothers me more; that I only had a 10% success rate with three choices, or that they put “Yoshi” in quotation marks.

So I’ve put this off long enough–I know everyone loves this game, but yes, I found issues with it. Three-dimensional platforming didn’t work well in Super Mario 64, which felt like playing skeeball blindfolded. The attempts at action-platforming on the Super Nintendo upgrades that analogy to…let’s say, playing piano blindfolded while wearing hockey gloves over numb hands. Also you can’t hear the piano. For most, but not all, attacks, special abilities and items, you can tap the command button at a certain time during the animation in order to receive an upgraded effect; however, counting for the difference in animations, the uncertainty of whether or not the attack has an upgrade, and the lack of a clear point to double-tap the button makes this…uh, let’s say like playing banjo in hockey gloves? (Hey, I don’t have a limitless supply of analogies and I just have to make them up based on what I see in the room!) Geno’s special “charge” attacks almost never worked for me, but honestly, regular attacks outclass special attacks by so much in this game that I rarely used flower points for anything but healing. Square included these elements in order to give the game a more action-oriented feel. Thank you, Square, for interpreting the challenge in turning Mario into an RPG as “How to make it feel less like an RPG.”

Yes! Level 2! Now to just finish off the final boss...

Yes! Level 2! Now to just finish off the final boss…

Also, Square populated the Mushroom Kingdom with enough enemies to rival a plague of locusts or an invasion of army worms. In a genre where people criticizes most games for repetitive, time-consuming battles, “adding more enemies” really doesn’t make up for a short game length. And no, the solution employed–handing out exp with the generosity of a Republican in a soup kitchen–doesn’t really fix the issue. In fact, if I spend twenty-some odd hours in battle alone, I’d appreciate it if I could finish the game a little higher than level 25. Character growth, for the most part, remains static, so no matter who you use in battle, they all level up at the same speed, and learn their predetermined skills at a predetermined time, allowing for no more customization than adding one or two points to your choice of stat at each new level. Because fighting Smithy with an attack power of 225 made a world of difference compared with 200. (And before you ask, I dumped all of Geno’s bonuses into his special attack, and even at level 25 his physical attack did more damage.)

...yo, is this racist?

…yo, is this racist?

I know everyone loves this game and it makes top-ten lists all the time. And in all fairness, I liked the cartoonish feel to it as well as traveling through a Mushroom Kingdom filled for the first time with people and villages and things other than jutting ends of pipes, piles of bricks and other mostly unfinished attempts at improving infrastructure. But the game feels more like a novelty than a masterpiece. Worth playing, maybe, but not often. Also, Mole Village gives off a vaguely racist vibe.