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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: Read the rest of this entry »


Chocobo Comparisons, Part One: Facing Worlds

First off, apologies for not posting in awhile. I had some computer problems to deal with, mixed in with some real-life stuff along the way. On top of that, I’ve also been enraptured by two excellent RPGs.

Serph, the hero of Digital Devil Saga

Serph, the hero of Digital Devil Saga

Right now, it seems like I’m nearing the end of Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga, and I know that’s the case with Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon (aka Chocobo’s Mysterious Dungeon: The Labyrinth of Lost Time). I started the former first, taking an initial dip into the one franchise which occupies my backlog more than any other, then the second afterwards, wanting something more lighthearted in tone to balance against the darker game. However, although they are certainly very different games in atmosphere—not to mention style, as Digital Devil Saga is your standard turn-based affair and Chocobo’s Dungeon is a roguelike—I eventually noticed that these two have far more in common than meets the eye in terms of story.

Digital Devil Saga centers around Serph and the group of fighters he leads, the Embryon. They live in the desolate Junkyard where tribes fight one another for the right to go to Nirvana; all this is overseen by the Karma Temple, which is headquartered in a tall, towering structure at the center of the environs. Serph’s world begins to change when a mysterious girl with strange powers emerges from a cocoon-like thing in the middle of a battlefield. He and the rest of the Junkyard’s inhabitants gain the ability to transform into the beastlike Atma, and little by little they start to see their world in a different light.

Chocobo’s Dungeon centers around a chocobo named, er, Chocobo and the group of friends he makes. He finds himself in the idyllic town of Lostime where residents live happily without memories; all this is overlooked by the Bell of Oblivion, which resides in a tall tower in the center of town. Lostime begins to change when a mysterious boy with strange powers emerges from a speckled egg which comes out of the sky. Chocobo gains the ability to enter Mysterious Dungeons enabled by lost memories, and later, change into Job forms. Little by little, the townsfolk start to see their world in a different light.

Chocobo, the hero of Chocobo's Dungeon

Chocobo, the hero of Chocobo's Dungeon

It’s important to note here one very crucial distinction between Serph and Chocobo: while Serph begins the game as a part of the Embryon and the world at large, Chocobo is a complete outsider, having been magically whisked away to Lostime during a treasure hunt in a desert. There’s also the matter of complexity, as Digital Devil Saga’s story is a bit more sophisticated and unpredictable than that of Chocobo’s Dungeon. Indeed, the foreshadowing in Chocobo’s Dungeon is fairly easy to interpret for this JRPG vet; I suppose that its overall light RPG trappings have much to do with it, despite the hardcore nature of the gameplay (more on that in a later post). As for Digital Devil Saga, I haven’t been able to figure out what exactly is going on, and am as curious to know more as the characters themselves.

Still, I could’ve never anticipated that these two would be this similar as far as their basic plots go. Much has been said of JRPG plots and how cliched they can get after awhile, but there generally tends to be a significant amount of variation between them (for some reason, this seems to be most true of strategy RPGs, but I digress). In the case of Digital Devil Saga and Chocobo’s Dungeon, the similarities don’t bother me in the least, as the actual meat of the games are vastly different, and that’s what I play RPGs for in the first place. I hope to have Chocobo’s Dungeon beaten this weekend, but will probably continue to play the game afterwards, depending on whatever post-ending content there is. Likewise, I’m going to try to wrap up Digital Devil Saga sometime next week. Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see if the plot similarities continue on through these games’ endings.

Chocobo source art from Neoseeker (neoseeker.com).


Greater Objectivity in Certain Reviewing-Related Matters

For the past week, I’ve mainly been playing Samurai Legend Musashi, a PS2 action RPG from a few years back. Overall, it’s fairly average, but despite the simple battle system and other, smaller issues, it’s a fun game and I’m enjoying it.

Not too short, not too long, but just right.

Not too short, not too long, but just right.

This might sound odd, but one of the things which attracted me to the game in the first place was its length. In reviews, I’d read that it was fairly short for an RPG, and indeed, I’m getting near the end now and am somewhere around the fifteen-hour mark. Your modern JRPG (turn-based, action, or strategy) clocks in at an average of fifty hours if one includes any required grinding and a sidequest or two; going for full completion typically takes much longer, and often requires going past the hundred-hour mark. That Musashi offers a complete action RPG experience in a length that was adequate in the 16-bit era is certainly not a negative, especially for a genre fan like me who only has so much time to devote to gaming.

I don’t think Samurai Legend Musashi’s length should’ve been a negative factor in reviews (which it certainly was in some of them) unless the story felt rushed or inadequately told. On the contrary, the story in Musashi is simple and fits the overall length very well, and though I’ve yet to beat the game, I haven’t seen anything that would indicate a less-than-satisfactory ending. And that brings me to today’s topic: some things I would like to see listed separately in reviews that shouldn’t be considered as a positive or negative within the review itself unless there’s a very good reason.

First off, average game length. If a game leaves one wanting more, I can understand that. However, lambasting (or praising) a game simply because it’s a certain length is pretty silly. This is especially true of modern RPG reviews, where the general consensus seems to be, “the longer, the better.” I understand there’s a cost/value consideration, especially when it comes to pricey but short actioners a la God of War, but this is one area where I feel that it’s best for the readers to decide for themselves, as not everyone has the same amount of leisure time to devote to games. The only site I visit on a regular basis which tends to list length separately is RPGamer; I’d love to know of others.

Speaking of RPGamer, they do the same with difficulty. Not all gamers sport the same level of skill, and thus, as with game length, one size does not fit all. Slamming a game because it’s “too easy” doesn’t do it or its potential audience much favors. Again, there are exceptions, the biggest one being the accounting of difficulty/learning curves, which is something I always want to know about when reading reviews. Otherwise, readers should be told up front, without further judgement, how easy or hard a reviewer found a game to be.

The last major one is the manufacturer’s suggested retail price—in American dollars, euros, yen, Microsoft points, whatever. Now more than ever, games vary wildly in price, from free browser-based titles to pricey special edition versions of big-budget console releases. As previously implied, pricing can be tied in with average length, as there’s a “cost per hour” metric which some gamers like to account for, but only some of them. Listing the price up front, but not commenting on it unless there’s a damn good reason, is something I’d like to see in a lot more reviews.

There are some other separate factors that may also be considered. One of these is genre, another is potentially objectionable material (something which the parent-oriented sites, as well as mainstream sources like the New York Times, tend to cover). In general, though, these three represent what I feel are the most important variables that separate gamers: how much time they would like to spend on a single game, how much (or little) of a challenge they prefer, and how much money they are willing to drop.


Final Fantasy VII, E3 2009, and the Love of the Old

It’s been a busy week. In between real-life obligations, there’s also been livestreams (and liveblogs) of press conferences to watch, previews to read, and games to drool over. As the news editor for the Final Fantasy VII Citadel, however, one little line uttered by Jack Tretton during Sony’s press conference kept me particularly busy; something about FFVII being available on the PlayStation Network’s store that same day. I was not done, though, as Europe is also getting FFVII this week.

Those of you who have known me, even for a short while, are aware that Final Fantasy VII is my all-time favorite game. There are many reasons why this is, not least of which is the game itself. The last time I played it was last summer, my first full playthrough in years; not only did I love every second of it, but I even noticed certain things which hadn’t caught my attention before. When the final FMVs played and the credits rolled, I felt a surge of emotion, a mix of satisfaction and sadness that it was all over, yet again. It’s no joke when I say that Final Fantasy VII is very near and dear to my heart.

Unfortunately, us FFVII fans get a bad rap these days. Thanks to the overall mediocrity of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII (though I hear Crisis Core’s gameplay is okay and Advent Children Complete is supposed to be decent), along the original game’s own popularity, there are a lot of haters. I don’t think there would be nearly so many these days if the Compilation hadn’t come about and added to the fanbase—and to the number of people clamoring for a “next-gen” remake, a potentially expensive and disastrous proposition. I’m not one of the remake-wanters and am in fact very much against the idea; I did advocate a remake several years ago, but that was long before the Compilation came along and made the FFVII canon into lacy swiss. That said, I am very happy that the original FFVII is now available through PlayStation Stores worldwide, both for the old fans as well as the newbies who (understandably) don’t want to pay astronomical prices on eBay.

Although FFVII was the only old game that commanded a great amount of attention this E3 thanks to its rerelease, nostalgia is hardly in short supply. This week has seen game announcements for storied franchises (Metroid: Other M, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and a smattering of Metal Gears, to name a few), upcoming franchise entries that also share an old-school feel (New Super Mario Bros. Wii), wholly new games that are decidedly old school in their approach (CliffyB’s 2.5D Metroidvania titled Shadow Complex), at least one remake (Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition), and at least one game—an entry in a younger series—which employs nostalgia in a different way (The Beatles: Rock Band).

It’s no secret that game developers are shying away from big-budget new IP; times have changed and game development costs for next-gen titles can get into the astronomical. I don’t think gamers mind much, though. For all the demands for innovation and all-around general newness from the hardcores, new sequels and spinoffs for old favorites generally seem to be met with welcome arms, provided developers don’t deviate from the familiar too much. Add an extra dash of “awesome”, as Nintendo did when it revealed that its new Metroid was a collaboration with Team Ninja, and a receptive audience is guaranteed.

There’s no shame in sequels and spinoffs as long as they’re done well and with obvious care, and while the sheer number of them at the Big Three’s press conferences was a little disheartening, at the same time, I’m really anticipating the latest Mario & Luigi game and think God of War III looks great. I know I’m hardly alone in that respect.

Now to fight back the urge to play FFVII again…

Special Stage: Here’s some of my favorite E3 videos. By no means are these the only games shown at E3 that I’m interested in:
The Beatles: Rock Band – Opening cinematic from the game. Much of the crowd animation ranges from stiff to nonexistent, but overall, it’s fantastic.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 – Sure, it’s more of the same, but rarely has “more of the same” looked so awesome. Plus, there’s Yoshi!
Final Fantasy VII – How often does one see a new trailer for a twelve year old game?
Bayonetta – Oh my. Now that I’ve seen this in action, it has moved from my “might want” category to my “DO WANT” one.


Today’s Odds & Ends

I typically save episodes of Listen UP for when I need to kill time, and sometimes wind up with a backlog. This wasn’t the case this time around, as I only had last Friday’s episode to catch up on while doing laundry today. I was particularly intrigued by the bit about EA Sports Active, which is out this week. Wii Fit has not stuck with me at all, and I still slip from my regular DDR routine from time to time. This sounds like it’s worth a look.

Speaking of 1UP, I visited the site today and skimmed through their recent feature titled, “101 Free Games 2009”. The presence of the wacky fan-made RPG Barkley, Shut Up & Jam: Gaiden, which I played earlier this year, surprised me, but I’m not complaining. This unholy marriage of JRPG and NBA is short but sweet, and fairly competent for what it is. Check it out if you haven’t already.

Today’s announcement of Metroid Prime Trilogy for the Wii was another pleasant surprise. I haven’t played any of the Metroid Prime series—or any Metroid games, for that matter—and had always heard good things about them. This is getting a place on my “want” list. Which reminds me, I also have to get the New Play Control version of Pikmin…