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.
But 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?
Feeling too tired to delve deeper into the story-heavy Tales of Legendia, and knowing that Etrian Odyssey was much lighter in that respect, I finally got around to starting the latter this afternoon. I had bought a copy listed as “New” from an Amazon Marketplace seller several months ago. The shrinkwrapping was surprisingly poor for Atlus, the case had some minor imperfections, and though the manual was present and in perfect shape, the usual DS Health and Safety Guide was missing. That said, I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised to find a save file on the cart once I fired it up. I had never left feedback for the seller, and it’s way too late to do so now, but I did file a complaint regarding the wrongly-labeled condition of the item.
Anyway, the game. I’d been intimidated by Etrian Odyssey, which is my main reason for putting off playing it for so long. Not because of its storied difficulty, but because of the map-drawing mechanic. Somehow, I had gotten the impression that the mapping tools enabled players to design the dungeons, including item, event, and enemy placements. I don’t know why I thought this, as it makes no sense, but there you go. It turns out that the mapping tools are not there for design, but actual cartography. Unlike other dungeon crawlers, which automatically draw the maps for you as you explore them, Etrian Odyssey makes you do the hard work. Maps have to be painted in, walls drawn to denote borders, treasure locations noted, and so on.
All this takes place in the land of Etria, where there’s just a town, and a labyrinth of a forest. Officials in the town are rewarding adventuring guilds for exploring the labyrinth, and the player is in charge of such a guild. The town contains all the necessities: an equipment store, a guildhall to create and manage party members, a hotel to rest and save at, an apothecary for healing purposes, and so on, and then there’s the untamed wilderness of the labyrinth, filled with random battles against monsters and things to do and see.
Navigating in the towns is done entirely through menus, while travel in the dungeon takes place in a 3D first-person point of view on the top screen, and on the map grid on the bottom one. Battles are carried out in the classic Dragon Quest style: your entire party’s commands are entered in before each turn, and still images of the enemies are shown on-screen with accompanying battle effects. The difficulty of said battles lives up to the game’s reputation, and I expect it will only get harder from here. Also throughout the dungeon are treasures, odd crystals which I don’t quite know the purpose of yet, and little events that are activated either automatically, or when the A button is pressed after a prompt.
So far, I’ve completed just one mission, and found an odd loophole in the midst of it. The beginners’ mission requires talking to a knight stationed within the first floor of the labyrinth; he asks you to map out a certain area before letting you pass, in order to complete the first task of mapping said floor. However, after I’d satisfied the knight, I did some backtracking to find areas I’d been to before, but died in the middle of (the only save point that I know of so far is in town; fortunately, newly mapped areas can be saved when the Game Over screen is reached). In the middle of this backtracking, I found a place I hadn’t mapped that appeared to be within the boundaries that the knight had originally specified. I don’t know if this was an oversight, a bug, or if I really didn’t have to map the whole area, just most of it. Doubt it’s the latter, though, and a quick look at a GameFAQs doc verified that the knight wanted the whole space within the set boundaries mapped. It should be interesting to see if there are any other such quirks as the game goes on. So far, it’s got the simple atmosphere I was hoping for, and holds my interest enough to me to stick with it. Not sure if it’s “engrossing” yet, but I can certainly see it becoming so.
Special Stage: Totally unrelated, but I rambled on a bit about the Compilation of FFVII and related matters in my LJ early this morning. I hope at least some of it makes sense.
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!
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.
Last week over AIM, I said something to namatamiku that he didn’t expect to hear from me. In discussing my current addiction to Pokemon Ruby, I said that Pokemon “may just be the greatest game of all time,” later adding, “in all seriousness, I think the series as a whole is a strong contender for the title of Quintessential JRPG.”
A little bit of background first. Pokemon Ruby is the first game in the main series that I’ve ever played, though I’ve been familiar with the franchise since Red/Blue initially hit the States. Back then, I was in college and didn’t do much gaming myself. One of my classmates had gotten Pokemon Red and brought it into the studio one night. A handful of us watched her play, captivated by it. I’m not sure we knew why this was the case at the time, but clearly Nintendo was on to something, as Pokemon has since become one of the best-selling RPG series of all time. Since then, I played some rounds of Pokemon Stadium at another friend’s place, was exposed to the anime series (the only episode I clearly remember seeing all the way through was “Island of the Giant Pokemon”), and even acquired some jelly jars (though my Clefairy one broke, sadly). However, it wasn’t until last month that I started a main-series Pokemon game. It was between buying Pokemon Platinum, which had just come out, and borrowing my husband’s copy of Ruby; not sure if I would even like the series, and wanting to save some money, I went with the latter option. Now, here I am, over sixty hours in, with 80+ completed entries in my Pokedex and just one more gym badge to go, impressed by the game’s complexity and elegance.
At its heart, Pokemon is a traditional turn-based RPG in the vein of Dragon Quest coupled with a simple plot pulled straight from the pages of Shonen Jump. Ruby starts you off in a small town in the Hoenn region, a world where everything revolves around Pokemon: work, play, shopping, travel, everything. You are a young novice trainer who sets off on a goal to become The Best. Along the way, there are wild Pokemon to capture, other trainers to challenge, and the overzealous Team Magma to deal with. All battle in the game is conducted by the Pokemon, up to six of which can be carried at a time, and just like playable characters in any other RPG, they can be level up, suffer from status effects, learn new abilities, and have their stats tweaked. There are two crucial differences however: Pokemon can only “know” four abilities total at any given time, and on top of that, many of them can also evolve into higher forms. Given that there are several dozen types of Pokemon in the game, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and ranging in presentation from the cute to the badass, party management is perhaps the most important skill a Pokemon player must develop.
It is in this depth of variety, in the Pokemon species scattered across a handful of class-types, that the genius of Pokemon lies. Not only does the “gotta catch ’em all” aspect appeal to one’s inner collector, but just as the set limit on abilities forces hard decisions at times, so too does the collection itself. By making each Gym Leader—the game’s equivalent of bosses—a specialist in a certain type (or types) of Pokemon, balance in one’s party is (gradually) encouraged, and learning what’s super effective and what isn’t is often the most satisfying part of a successful match.
Which brings me to my next point: for a game series which is largely aimed at children, it is incredibly respectful of them. While there are hints and such given by NPCs throughout the game, there is no hand-holding, and challenging battles are handled the same straightforward way as easier ones. Additionally, the NPCs speak naturally, never talking down to the preteen protagonist (and by extension, the player), and fill a wide range of personalities, occupations, and ages. I believe that this honest, authentic approach is one major reason why the series is not only a big hit with children, but accessible to adults as well; Pokemon is best labeled an “all ages” series rather than a “kids” one.
I could go on. There’s the lively and exhilarating soundtrack; the Harvest Moon-esque berry cultivation; the subtle puns present in the names of several Pokemon species; the Pokemon Contests, clearly styled after dog shows and the like; the options available for Pokemon to learn abilities, evolve, and even level up outside of battle; and so on. Amazingly enough, somehow it all comes together in a tightly-packaged whole. I imagine that the multiplayer aspects of the series open it up even further, and from what I’ve seen in Ruby, this does appear to be the case. Still, it is one of those rare games with a heavy multiplayer bent where the single-player experience doesn’t suffer because of it.
From my experience thus far with Ruby, I feel that Pokemon is a game series that everyone should experience at least once. It takes the best aspects of Japanese RPGs and pulls them all together in a unique, engrossing way. Sure, it has a reputation for sameness between installments, but for most people one title should be plenty, and if there’s ever an urge to pick up another, then I see no harm in that. After all, this is what my husband did not long after I started Ruby; getting nostalgic for the game, and unable to create a second save file on the cart, he went out and got Platinum instead. His Pokedex numbers and Gym Badge collection still have to catch up with mine, though!
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