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Month: August 2009

Back to the Future!

Last weekend I was away, and brought DS games Etrian Odyssey and Retro Game Challenge with me, with the intent of starting them. I never did touch either of them, and while Etrian Odyssey remains unplayed, I did start the latter today.

A little introduction first: for those not in the know, Retro Game Challenge is the US title for Game Center CX: Arino’s Challenge. It is based on a popular Japanese show titled Game Center CX, which features a regular segment where host Shinya Arino plays an old video game, typically a hard one. These segments are filled with nail-biting moments, strategizing, and lots of humor. A company called StyleJam showed two of these segments, translated into English under the title Retro Game Master, at last year’s New York Asian Film Festival to gauge interest in possible US DVD releases, but so far, nothing has panned out.

Brain training this ain't!
Brain training this ain't!
Though I’d heard of the show before, these screenings (which featured Mystery of Atlantis and Ghosts ‘n Goblins) were my first real introduction to Game Center CX. I loved them, and when news came around of a localized version of the well-received Game Center CX: Arino’s Challenge, I put it on my wish list, and eventually picked it up.

The premise of Retro Game Challenge is a silly one. Arino, looking like a demented version of Dr. Kawashima, sends the player back to his ’80s childhood. To return home, the player must complete a series of, you guessed it, retro game challenges. The games are all original, but resemble those which came out for the Famicom/NES back in the day. So far, I’ve played a Galaga-style space shooter and a puzzle-action game where the main character is a robot ninja, and now I’m working through the challenges for Rally King, a top-down racing game. I like old school racers, but tend to suck at them, and this is no exception.

To help the player get through the challenges, kid!Arino will obtain the latest issues of GameFan (no, not that GameFan) which contain not only previews and reviews of new titles, but tips and tricks for ones that have already been released. Although I loathe using cheat codes and other shortcuts nowadays, it’s less painful for me in this retro construct. After all, I remember as a kid hearing about how to get to the Warp Pipes in Super Mario Bros., among other tricks. As far as I’m concerned, GameFan‘s tips are just another throwback.

Speaking of the game mags, they contain some of Retro Game Challenge’s more tongue-in-cheek bits of humor. In addition to reviews and tips, the basic content of these mags consists of hype, top sales lists, and even a letters section and editorial (penned early on by “Dan Sock”, one of many parodies of/homages to real-life game journalists). Along with the occasional bits of Engrish in the games themselves, and Kawashima!Arino and kid!Arino’s banter, the overall effect is a charming and sometimes silly setting that would put a smile on any retro gamer’s face.

So yes, I’m having fun, and it’s very good so far. Now to beat the rest of the Rally King challenges…

Special Stage: Ray Barnholt’s Game Center CX Episode Guide at Crunk Games is a great introduction to the TV series. Be forewarned that the episode synopses contain spoilers (and yes, fansubs do exist). There’s also a sequel to the DS game which includes fake 16-bit titles, but unfortunately, there’s little chance of it leaving Japan.

The Game Remains the Same… and That’s Okay

Recently-returned oldbie Keefy has started a thread at the Citadel’s Forums titled Your Top Ten Games – Ever. My post is here, mainly pulled from the top of my head. This being a Final Fantasy-related forum, I imagine I’ll get a lot of flak for not including any games from that series in the list.

Afterwards, I got to thinking about why hardcore gamers like the Final Fantasy series so much while dismissing the far more accessible likes of Pokemon. The latter’s “kiddy” trappings aside, the main complaint I hear leveled against Pokemon is that each new installment in the main series is too similar to what has come before. I won’t argue with that; as I said in my Pokemon Ruby impressions post, one Pokemon title should be enough for most people. However, can you imagine the backlash that would occur amongst Pokemon’s dedicated fanbase if the series did take a radical turn?

I would imagine that it would be huge. Mario and Zelda fans, among others, cry out for innovation and often get it, but also complain about new things that they don’t like. Most recently, Dragon Quest IX—the first mainline Dragon Quest to debut on a handheld—has encountered some backlash from dedicated fans. And of course, the Final Fantasy series is not exempt from this, despite its reputation for drastic change from installment to installment; the black sheep of that family include FFVIII with its Junction system, FFXII with its MMO-like trappings, and FFXI and FFXIV, which are MMOs.

Many hardcore gamers seem to crave innovation, but this doesn’t always translate to big hits, or even enjoyable games. Familiarity is a staple that many game series rely on—not just big hits like Pokemon, but also those with smaller yet dedicated fanbases. In any other medium, this same demand for innovation would be silly. Long-running TV shows like Wheel of Fortune may change some over time, and authors like Stephen King hone their craft over several years, but for the most part, people tend to follow specific entertainments (and entertainers) because they continually provide things that they like. I understand that video games, being a technology-dependent medium, are a little different, but there’s nothing wrong with following a series that doesn’t change very much. Innovation is all well and good, but so are high-quality stalwarts, and I hope that they’ll continue to stick around.

The Game After the Game

I haven’t started up a new JRPG since beating Digital Devil Saga 2—mainly because of certain real-life obligations that I had been putting off and needed to take care of. That’s not to say I haven’t been gaming. Along with some Planet Puzzle League and DDR, I completed Wario Land, getting all of the treasures (and the best ending) for the first time, and have been slowly progressing through Klonoa 2: Dream Champ Tournament. Also, most recently, I’ve gone back to Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon.

Gameplay spoilers ahead:

The Digital Devil Saga Duology

Once upon a time, there was a dystopia called the Junkyard. The people of this land were divided into six factions, each one designated by a specific color, and their never-ending fight for the right to enter Nirvana was overseen by a seventh entity, the Karma Temple. One day, life in the Junkyard changes when a strange girl emerges from a cocoon, and all of the residents receive the powers of demons. The battle is ratcheted up a notch as the presence of these demons, or Atma, require the residents to start eating each other to remain sane.

Right from the outset, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is not your typical JRPG, and the plot only gets more complicated from there. By the time the game ends, you are left with a cliffhanger and many unanswered questions, all of which are addressed (in a sometimes sloppy manner) in Digital Devil Saga 2. Throughout their journey, Serph and the other characters grow and change, find old emotions and uncover pasts and events which they had forgotten or never even known. They’re the types of characters one can get attached to, and even the most unlikable of all, the volatile Heat, ends up being more than he seems.

While the story may be a refreshing departure from the anime fantasies of most JRPGs, the battle and character growth systems are quite familiar. Here, the biggest outside influence on the Digital Devil Saga duology seems to be Final Fantasy X. Not only is one able to swap characters in and out during the midst of battle, but the ability systems in both games take forms that resemble the Sphere Grid. By spending in-game currency at save points, characters can unlock different ability sets, called Mantras, for their Atma to learn. In Digital Devil Saga, Mantras are arranged in a clear, mostly linear map, but in the sequel, this is replaced by a hexagonal grid that not only allows more freedom, but is also tougher to navigate. Once a Mantra has been paid for and set, Atma Points, which are used to master said abilities, can be earned by defeating and/or devouring enemies during battle. It’s a straightforward, elegant system that, while not being quite as complex as the Sphere Grid, does its inspiration proud.

Going back to battles: one of the game’s most distinctive features is the “Press Turn” system, which makes what would otherwise be a staid turn-based affair into something more dynamic. At the beginning of each round in battle, every character and enemy present receives a turn. These turns can be added to or subtracted from by pulling off certain moves. For instance, attacking a monster with a spell type it’s weak against, or with a critical hit, will add a turn to your party’s current round. However, if you miss in your attack, or cast a spell that an enemy can block or absorb, a turn or two can be lost. Skipping a character will cost half a turn, combo attacks cost two or three, and there are other, specific ways to manipulate the number of turns per round, especially in the second game. It’s the type of system that requires careful strategizing and can also get your party into trouble very quickly, especially in the later dungeons. There have been times when I enter a random battle and the enemy goes first—only to be completely wiped out by them without doing anything, because they attacked with spells my party were weak against, or happened to pull off a completely successful instant-death move on everyone. Fortunately, these occurrences were infrequent enough to be merely annoying rather than frustrating, but at the same time, they’re a notable flaw in this otherwise ingenious system.

The game’s general aesthetic is another notable feature. The character designs have a unique style to them, and the world eschews the Judeo-Christian and Buddhist themes of many other JRPGs for Hinduism—from the concept of Nirvana, to enemies visually based on the likes of Vishnu and Ganesha, to the simple mandala designs found throughout both games. Voice acting ranges from tolerable to excellent, leaning more towards the latter overall; unfortunately, the sound mix for the battles nearly drown out any present voice snippets entirely. The guitar-driven soundtracks are decent, and DDS2’s is especially good, with heavy electronica leanings and an engaging, beat-infused main battle theme that trumps the first game’s more sluggish one.

When I first began fleshing out my PS2 RPG collection, it took me quite awhile to find these two games at a decent price (I eventually snagged them off of eBay in a single lot for $100). Despite the occasional annoyances with instant-death battles and having to grind late in both games in order to take down some particularly tricky bosses, I greatly enjoyed them. They were each a good length—roughly 35-40 hours apiece—and although some bits of the story ended up being vague and nonsensical in DDS2, I liked the world and the characters. There’s more about the DDS duology to enjoy than I’ve discussed here, but in general, if you’d like to play a dark, mature RPG with large, complex dungeons and challenging battles, these two games are worth looking into.