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Month: January 2010

The Latest Hybrid Model

There’s been a lot in gaming press, blogs, and messageboards lately about how Japanese RPGs are stagnating. With the arrival, en masse of high-quality Western RPGs on consoles, history is repeating itself. Remember what happened when console gamers discovered what good first-person shooters and built-in modding/customizing tools were like? Halo was not a big deal to those of us who had previously played everything from Wolfenstein 3D onward, and Little Big Planet looked nice, but was it really going to revolutionize things when powerful—but not overly intimidating—modding tools like UnrealEd were old news?

Anyway, like I said, there’s a lot of whining about how JRPGs have gone downhill, and some people think that the best way to fix them is to, generally, make them more Western. Such homogenization isn’t the best approach (and wouldn’t make the core JRPG consumer base happy), but what is? While some JRPG series (most notably Dragon Quest, Tales, and Pokemon) soldier on with high-quality, well-received main entries, other games have been seeking different approaches. There’ve been some novel experiments (Valkyria Chronicles, The World Ends With You), but more commonly, we’ve seen a lot of hybrids.

Hybrid RPGs are not easy to pigeonhole, and they’ve always kinda-sorta been around in one form or another, but the past few years have really seen them come into their own. For evidence of this, RPGamer’s Best of 2009 Awards is worth a look. While more traditional RPG fare took the top prizes, many genre blends popped up in other categories: SRPG/shmup Knights in the Nightmare, RPG/microgame mashup Half-Minute Hero, dungeon crawler/farming sim Rune Factory Frontier, and so on. The phenomenon isn’t limited to Japan, either, one of the more recent examples being the Western-developed puzzle RPG Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, likewise mentioned in the Best of 2009. Clearly, RPGs mixing with other genres is a growing trend, and going by the quality of the hybrids I’ve played so far, it’s one that I personally would like to see continue.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story - Lending Bowser a hand, through minigames!One of the original hybrid RPG stars has been, not unexpectedly, Mario. First in Super Mario RPG, then in the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games, the portly Italian plumber’s RPG adventures intermingle with the precise jumping and timing that define his platforming exploits. The Mario & Luigi series in particular adds an extra layer of challenge by having you control both Mario Bros. on the field at the same time, and eventually, special moves become available that can only be pulled off when the two are together. The second game, Partners in Time quadruples the party when Baby Mario and Baby Luigi join their older selves on the quest. This was also the first game in the series to appear on the Nintendo DS (the original was on the Game Boy Advance), occasionally reserving the top screen as the babies’ domain, with special areas only they can explore, for when they aren’t riding piggyback on the adults.

The latest Mario & Luigi game (and the last Mario RPG ever made that I had left to play), the Fall 2009 release Bowser’s Inside Story, is likewise on the DS, but this time, the party is reduced to three: Mario, Luigi, and perennial bad guy Bowser. The basic plot is that the Mushroom Kingdom has been hit hard by a disease called the Blorbs, which causes the local Toads to swell up into obese giants. Meanwhile, Bowser is, yet again, planning to kidnap Princess Peach when, along the way, he eats a strange mushroom which causes him to swallow up the Princess, Mario, Luigi, and half the Kingdom. Mixed in with all this is the delightfully mad Fawful, Cackletta’s henchman from the first game who comes back as a full-fledged villain here. While Mario and Luigi explore Bowser’s body to try and find a way out, Bowser commences on his own journey. What comes out of their adventures is one of the strangest symbiotic relationships the Mario canon has seen yet.

The hallmarks of the series are all present—the platforming, the special moves, the hidden items, the funny script, and so on—but a third major element has been added to the mix of RPG and Platformer: Minigames.

Special Stage Extra: Let’s Rock, Baby

Aside from being busy with other things, I’ve been playing a lot of Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, an intriguing game of mushrooms, chortles, and globin. However, today’s post isn’t about that, as I’ve not yet beaten it (actually, I’m very near to the end, so expect that entry soon); rather, today I have a roundup of links which have caught and/or been brought to my attention lately.

If this isn't girly, I don't know what is.
If this isn't girly, I don't know what is.

Bayonetta has been on my mind for a long time now, and even though it’s finally out, it’s not so much of a priority that I went out and got it right away. Still, I’ve been reading and hearing things about it here and there. The most interesting piece I’ve come across so far is Leigh Alexander’s Bayonetta: empowering or exploitative? She makes a great case for the title character being a truly feminine protagonist. I played the demo not long after reading this piece and through that small glimpse, I can completely see what Alexander is getting at. Bayonetta is sexy and appealing, sure, but she’s also not just a male character in a female skin—she really is feminine. I think a lot of it’s in the details, like the blown kisses, the butterfly wings that sometimes appear on her back, and the way she reacts, in a cutscene, when flowers sprout up from the ground beneath her feet. It’s all so stylish, but I expect no less from the designer who previously gave the world another sexy piece of eye candy in the form of Devil May Cry‘s Dante.

Speaking of which, a new printing of Dante Alighieri’s poem Inferno is now available in bookstores, with a cover that has to be seen to be believed. Both aghast and amused, I took the news to Fandom Lounge to share this horror with others; there are many gamers who frequent the group blog, but also many more avid readers, and their own reactions were not unexpected. The wallpaper-sized version of the obligatory Penny Arcade comic that followed has been trimmed down and is now on my desktop.

Cheers to StarKnightX over at the CAG Forums for posting the link to Bitmob’s article Dangerous Ideas to Improve the Video Game Industry. I don’t know if I agree with some of the points made, but in general, it’s a thought-provoking piece, and well worth a look.

Finally, something funny I ran into while lurking over at a certain forum, as I do every so often: a comprehensive BioWare RPG Cliché Chart. A great companion to the classic Grand List (see the Links page for that if you don’t know what I’m talking about), and, from what I can tell, about as spoilerific, so take care.

The Fun Driving Simulator

You wouldn’t know it by reading this blog, but one of the few video gaming genres I have loved unconditionally my entire life, ever since I was old enough and tall enough to reach the sticks on arcade cabinets, has been car driving and racing. I have fond memories of Pole Position; consider the OutRun soundtrack to be the greatest in the medium’s history; have smiled with Cruisin’ USA, gritted my teeth courtesy of Crazy Taxi, and laughed over manic multiplayer Mario Kart DS sessions. And even though I eventually gave up on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and open-world games in general, I took immense pleasure in simply cruising around a loving parody of the very real Miami Beach that I had spent much time in when I was younger, listening to the ’80s tunes and satirical talk shows on the radio. All of this is especially ironic since I have no interest in driving in real life and, in fact, only ever did so for a very short time.

Forza Motorsport 2 - screenshot 1But yes, I love driving games, even though I’m not very good at a lot of them. This last bit is why I don’t buy them all that often, and why, until recently, the first and last simulation racer I had ever bought was Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec, which came bundled with my first PlayStation 2. I had heard fantastic things about the Gran Turismo series, and this latest (at the time) entry in the series looked damned pretty, so for this casual driving game lover, I thought it was a no-brainer. However, my problem was just that: I was a casual driving game lover, and GT3 was very, very serious. In career mode, I got a starting car and some circuits to race on, but to save up enough money to upgrade from my lowly PT Cruiser was going to be a tedious task, and I never stuck with it. Of course, it didn’t help that the license tests, required to unlock the higher-level races, demand a certain sort of precision which my casual self couldn’t possibly hope (or want) to deliver.

I eventually set Gran Turismo 3 aside for other games, including the simpler but much more accessible go-kart racer Mario Kart DS, and ended up never touching it again. Another console generation rolled around. I picked up Mario Kart Wii and went through the entire Grand Prix in that, as I had with its predecessor, but it wasn’t enough. I wanted a more robust racing experience, something like Gran Turismo, but given my past experience, I had to do my research more carefully this time. We don’t have a PS3, but we do have an Xbox 360, and the Xbox brand’s equivalent of GT was Turn 10’s Forza Motorsport, so I began looking into that series. I already knew of its reputation for delivering as deep and realistic an experience as Polyphony Digital’s “Real Driving Simulator”, but could I play a Forza game and still have fun?

The answer? A resounding yes.

Everlasting Love

When I saw the “Game of the Decade?” thread on the Cheap Ass Gamer forums, I took the title more into consideration than the post itself. The “best” game of the ’00s? Even now, I’m still not sure about that. However, the game that best defines the past decade? When I posted my reply, it was based largely on a gut feeling, and one I still feel pretty good about. So anyway, here is the answer I gave, and now, I will also tell you why this game fits the bill.

Many splendid things can be picked up in We ♥ Katamari. Much love to llshibata on flickr for saving all the original official Katamari wallpapers.Game of the Decade:
We ♥ Katamari (PS2, 2006)

Thought I’d say something grander and/or more obvious, huh? Nope. My pick for GotD is the sequel to the idiosyncratic Katamari Damacy which, on the surface, merely looks like more of the same. However, not only is it a bigger and better game than its predecessor, but it also serves as a compact time capsule of much of the past decade in gaming. Here is why We ♥ Katamari is important in these terms:

It’s the quintessential auteur game in a decade full of them – …and few of the newer video game auteurs have been as genuinely creative as Keita Takahashi. The designer of the original Katamari, Takahashi wasn’t originally all that enthused about a sequel, but got on board for one all the same. What resulted wasn’t just a great game, but also one that was strikingly personal in a way that was and is rare for the medium: the plot this time around has to do with the King of All Cosmos (i.e., Takahashi) dealing with his newfound popularity (Katamari Damacy‘s global success) and trying to please his fans (the sequel’s new goals). The Japanese title—Minna Daisuki Katamari Damashii, literally “Everybody Loves Katamari Damacy”—reflects this theme much more directly than the Western one.

After We ♥ Katamari, Takahashi would not touch the series again, nor would he create another video game until 2009’s Noby Noby Boy. I haven’t played this new game, but I hear it’s interesting, and wonder how much of Takahashi’s sensibility shines through in it.

It was one of the brightest spots in a period of turmoil for Japanese games – …to say the least. When a famed producer from a major Japanese publisher declares that their home country is “done” at the 2009 Tokyo Game Show, then there’s trouble. During the past decade, Japanese genre staples like shmups and fighting games continued their steady decline in the West, the JRPG began one of its own, Sega got out of the hardware business, several companies merged with each other, and certain Western PC genres (most notably first-person shooters) exploded in popularity on consoles. Oddly enough, while all this was going on, it tended to be the more “Japanese” Japanese games that really made an impression on people. ICO was one such title, as was Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and, yes, Katamari Damacy. While the latter game’s US sales defied Namco’s expectations, We ♥ Katamari proved that it wasn’t just its predecessor’s lower MSRP that led people to pick it up. The Japanese quirks were certainly a selling point for a large chunk of the audience, but for others, it might’ve been the positive buzz or the weird gameplay. Or the simple fact that the first game was genuinely good and fun, and the sequel was said to be great as well; when it comes down to it, that’s what it’s usually about, right?

It’s the best game in one of the few new genres to emerge this past decade – …and there weren’t many of them. I’ve talked about garden games before—that nebulous new genre occupied not only by the likes of the Katamari series, but Elebits and de Blob, two others that take on the same basic concept of timed mass cultivation. We ♥ Katamari is the crème de la crème of the bunch in every way: tight controls, uniform graphics, witty writing, challenging-but-not-frustrating play, fresh levels, and a soundtrack that easily ranks among the best of the decade—for any game. In fact, the only quibble I have with it are the load times, but these are made a non-issue by the King of All Cosmos’ amusing chatter.

It had co-op before it was cool – …and so did some other games of the time, but I just thought I’d throw that in there for shits and giggles. Hell, if the King of All Cosmos was writing this post, you know he’d do the same.

So, there you have it, my Game of the Decade. It might seem a bit underwhelming right now, but I’m sure a number of years down the road, We ♥ Katamari will be looked back upon with the fondness and reverence that it is deserved. It may not be the most important game of the decade (Halo? World of WarCraft? Brain Age? Second Life? There’s a lot to choose from here), it may not have been the most innovative (not games, but Steam and the Nintendo DS get my votes here), it may not have sold the most copies or inspired the most bits of fanart or been what people have played the most of these past ten years, but for me, it is emblematic of the tumultuous, chaotic, but still fun katamari that was gaming in the ’00s. Personally, I didn’t love everything about said decade, but I will always love We ♥ Katamari.

A Nice Place to Visit, but…

Although I play a lot of stuff published by Square Enix, prior to Radiata Stories, I’d never played a tri-Ace game before. Squeenix games developed by studios like Jupiter, Level-5, or others, sure, but for some reason, never tri-Ace. I’m familiar with their reputation for shiny graphics and generally average games, though, and Radiata Stories in particular seems to be a polarizing title.

Jack runs past a tiny village in Radiata Stories.It is a very pretty game, with appealing graphics that border on painterly, and—unlike many other games where brown is the dominant color—are pleasing to the eye. Similarly, the soundtrack is quite good; certain tracks would always get stuck in my head over the course of my playthrough. This being Square Enix, the localization is also solid, with nary an annoying voice to be heard.

The underlying mechanics are also, for the most part, excellent. The battle system is one of the best I have ever seen in an action RPG. This is a much more immediate system than your typical one a la Tales or Kingdom Hearts, where AI-controlled party members’ capabilities are individually tweaked through menus. A menu is still used here, but everything goes through the main character, Jack Russell (named after the dog breed?). Once Jack is able to lead his own parties, he can issue commands to individual members or the whole group, and even call them into special formations. These commands can be learned in various ways over the course of the game, and like with a lot of battle systems, you’ll come to rely on certain actions more than others. Battles themselves are generally easy, and whatever genuine challenge gets thrown at you isn’t of the frustrating kind. As for navigation, for the most part, I was able to get around just fine, with the final dungeon being the most annoying place in a world that lacks them.

Where Radiata Stories falls apart—oddly enough, given the title—is in the storytelling. It starts out promising, with Jack leaving home to go to Radiata Castle, to join an order of knights. This initial part of the game is plot-heavy, but by the time Jack takes up residence in the town surrounding the castle, the player finds that they now have a lot more freedom… or so it seems. Here, the game’s quasi-open world feel expands even more; in addition to the regular day and night cycles, Jack can now take on odd jobs, make friends, and freely explore most of the city and world. However, unlike a lot of open world games, story events in Radiata Stories can’t be started at your own pace; instead, they will be automatically triggered after waking up or—more annoyingly—after arriving at home to save your progress (and naturally, you can’t do so until whatever cutscene that happens is over, if they allow you even that). About the save system: there are a few temporary save points throughout the world which pop up during story events, but permanent ones only exist in one place at a time, which is always in Jack’s living quarters. You can see how this can be problematic.

Aside from pacing concerns, the story itself has its share of cracks. Though most of the characterization is great, Jack himself isn’t handled particularly well. Certain aspects of his personality change too quickly, even given the tale’s brevity; it leads one to believe that Jack is either naïve or fickle, or both. The meat of the plot, once the game gets around to it, is somewhat confusing. There are two branching paths this story can take; the ending I got was unsatisfying, and what I’ve heard about the second one didn’t sound all that hot either.

Despite its great battle system and beautiful visual and aural aesthetics, I can’t really recommend Radiata Stories. Much as I prefer to play games for the actual game parts, a competent narrative (whenever narrative of any kind is called for) does contribute a lot to the overall experience. While the story does try to break away from certain JRPG clichés in an admirable way, it interrupts the open world flow of the overall game when it isn’t wanted, and on top of that, doesn’t make a good enough case for its own importance. Radiata Stories is chock-full of promising ideas and approaches, especially for a JRPG, but in the end, it doesn’t deliver as well as it could have.