In my heyday of collecting materials and merchandise related to Final Fantasy VII, I amassed anything that interested me, from action figures to demo disks, and including collector’s favorites like “the SIGGRAPH Disk”, “the Versus Guide”, and the limited-edition version of the soundtrack. Although I’ve since slowed down considerably, and even sold off some pieces, I still maintain said collection, which includes a subset titled the “Cloud Shrine”.
Without a doubt, the rarest—and strangest—part of my FFVII collection has been a set of three 35mm film reels dating from December 1997, each thirty seconds long, and containing an identical advertisement for the game. I got them via eBay sometime in the early-mid ’00s for around $35 (the seller included a Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within lobby card as a freebie). Aside from similar 35mm reels for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that appeared on eBay later on, I don’t know if any other video game theatrical ads from that era have been offered for sale to collectors, or are even still around. Some probably do exist, and are possibly online somewhere.
During my playthrough, I would sometimes post photos of the action on Twitter. Here, I marveled at how well Amano’s enemy designs were preserved.
When I played The Legend of Zelda back in 2011, it was my first hands-on experience with a game in that franchise. In a very different situation, I recently played through Final Fantasy, the debut title in a franchise which I am all too familiar with.
My first JRPG of any sort was Final Fantasy VII, and it remains my favorite, for sentimental and other reasons. I’ve beaten most of the others up through Final Fantasy X, including all of the Tactics and 3DS Theatrhythm spinoffs, a couple of the Chocobo ones, and two direct sequels, the fun and campy Final Fantasy X-2 and the truly dreadful Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII (on the plus side, at least a a very entertaining Let’s Play came out of it). I was the webmaster of the Final Fantasy VII Citadel for a time, and founded a few other FF fansites, some more successful than others. In other words, I spent the better part of a decade with Final Fantasy regularly on the brain. My interest started to decline around the time I gave up on the unwieldy Final Fantasy XII, and especially after leaving the webmaster post at the Citadel. However, I still like to dip my toes into the franchise every once in awhile, and my acquisition of an NES Classic earlier this summer gave me a good excuse to tackle the game that started it all.
This past Saturday, we drove down to Santa Clara for this year’s California Extreme, a celebration of classic arcade gaming featuring dozens of video game cabinets, pinball tables, and other amusements brought in by private collectors. There’s an entry fee—we paid $40 a head at the door—but afterward, all of the games are free to play. In addition, CA Extreme features a few panels, evening concerts, and a handful of vendors selling everything from old console games to pinball machine parts.
The range of arcade games, spread across two conference rooms in a hotel adjacent to a convention center, was truly impressive, spanning many decades. There were pinball tables from at least as far back as the late 1950’s up through Stern showing off their newest heavy metal-themed machine, Iron Maiden. Some shooting gallery and other mechanical machines looked even older, and would’ve been right at home in the Musée Mécanique. The newest, and oddest, non-video game at the show was a fully playable Pong-themed coffee table.
On that note, as far as video games went, most eras and genres were represented in one form or another, though the heaviest focus was on 80s titles. Amongst others, there were sections devoted to vector games, Pac-Man and its spinoffs, Japanese rhythm games (including a handful of recent titles), and cocktail cabinets. Throughout the afternoon, with the odd break every so often, we bounced between these rooms and a small console freeplay area upstairs.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been trying to devote my weekends to playing through at least one indie game. I’ve stuck with that through April, though two of the games I played this month are, while made by small teams, technically not indie: the first is the most famous title from a storied Western developer, and the other, though lesser-known, is by one of Japan’s most celebrated makers of all-ages visual novels. Also, I didn’t actually start the former game during the weekend, but I digress. Without any further ado, here are those games for the month of April 2016, indie or not, weekend or not.
Filled with Determination – April 2-3: Undertale (2015, tobyfox)
Undertale starts off twee, but becomes more substantial later on.
So it seems that there’s some meat behind the hype after all. Beyond the memes and fanart-friendly skeletons lies a deconstruction of RPGs, specifically Japanese-style console RPGs, and the various tropes that inhabit them. The central conceit is an encounter system that allows, and encourages, the player not to attack their foe, but instead to communicate with them before showing mercy. This affects the directions that the story can go in, and certain future interactions with the subterranean world in which the game takes place.
The tone throughout much of Undertale is contemporary and humorous, with some nods to otaku subculture in particular, plus a few (and thankfully, only a few) fourth-wall breaking moments and overt references to other games. Undertale‘s most obvious antecedent is Earthbound, another story centered around a child on an unexpected journey, but fortunately, it has none of its spiritual predecessor’s blatant patronization nor its interface and inventory flaws. Cave Story seems to be another inspiration, in part due to the underground setting and relatable characters, as well as the MegaTen series, via its comparatively simple conversation system. However, it’s impossible to truly say “it’s like (blah) crossed with (blah)” in regards to Undertale; as a complete package, there’s nothing else quite like it. I highly recommend this odd yet rewarding indie morsel, and also that new players go in knowing as little about it as possible.
Hell is a Place on Deimos – April 11-14: Doom (1993, id Software [via Doom 3: BFG Edition, 2012])
Many modern indies don’t have teams this small!
Doom requires little introduction. Before the term “first-person shooter” became the norm, it ushered in the era of “Doom clones”, and has been made to run on anything and everything, including within itself. I got my first tastes of Doom and its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D back around ’93 and/or ’94, and it has held a special place in my heart ever since. However, I had never actually beaten the original Doom. Wanting to rectify this, and too tired at the time to play anything with a deep plot, I installed the “BFG Edition” of Doom 3 and fired up that oldie. It holds up, and then some.
Doom‘s sprawling, labyrinthine levels are, save for one or two badly-implemented sections, still some of the best ever made; the enemies have a good range of toughness and attack types; and the weapons all feel right. Also, despite Doom‘s dated controls—for example, horizontal-only mouselook and no jumping—they never feel limiting thanks to some smart design. The fourth episode, which was made sometime after the completion of the main three, is more unbalanced than the others, but the blemishes that it adds to the whole are minor. By the way, the story, which involves a space marine and a portal to Hell, is as silly a bit of fluff as ever.
Ephemeral Stars – April 17-18: planetarian ~the reverie of a little planet~ (2004, Key [via English ver., 2014])
Yumemi’s excuse for her chattiness boils down to buggy software.
For all of the talk about “walking simulators”, an older genre which is often more limiting when it comes to player interaction is visual novels. An even more restrictive form is the kinetic novel, which is like a VN but completely linear, with no decisions to be made and a single ending. This term originates from the developer Key, which is, appropriately, the maker of planetarian, my introduction to this sub-genre.
planetarian takes place is a post-apocalyptic world upon which pours an endless, poisonous rain. The nameless protagonist, a manly tsundere scavenger, comes across a well-preserved planetarium, maintained by an android named Hoshino Yumemi. She is a waifu-candidate type of moe character: unfailingly positive, eager to please, and with quirks intended to cross the line from annoying to charming. Key is famous for their sentimental stories, and in that respect, planetarian does not disappoint; the middle chapters in particular are a highlight. However, I found the melodrama to be mawkish at times, and the repetition of certain story beats didn’t seem to work as well as they would in a serialized format. Despite these issues, a handful of typos and some peculiar grammatical choices, and the rare bit of thesaurus porn (for example, “demesne”, which was used metaphorically), the story and localization were all right, but nothing truly special. On the whole, planetarian has some charms, but is most definitely not for everyone. At least I can say that I’ve experienced a Key visual novel now.
A Spirited Journey – April 23-24: Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) (2014, Upper One Games/E-Line Media)
So far, Never Alone is one of the best-looking games I’ve played all year.
My final weekend game for this month was also the shortest. Never Alone, along with its DLC “Foxtales”, is a fairly straightforward platformer based on Native Alaskan folklore. The player characters are an Iñupiat girl and an arctic fox. A single player can easily control both of them, though there is a co-op mode as well.
The stories themselves, about an endless blizzard and a journey across water, are imaginative in a way that isn’t unexpected for traditional tales, and are more than suitable for a video game. Much of the puzzle-platforming is dependent on cued changes in the environment. While this works well enough in some sections, it feels slightly less so elsewhere, and some instances of clipping and slightly jerky animation don’t help. The checkpointing is fairly good, though, so there’s few frustrations to be had. I also must make note of the unlockable “Cultural Insight” videos, mini-documentaries about the Iñupiat people that are relevant to the game; as they provide a great deal of context about the game, they are worth checking out. It’s a well thought-out little game, despite its few flaws.
So, that about covers this month. I also played plenty of Diablo III and Bravely Default this month, and am currently nearing the ends of both of those; I’ve also recently started a replay of Doom II. As for what May will bring, I may cut back on the Weekend Indies for awhile and concentrate more on the longer games I have backlogged. We’ll see how it goes.
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March has been a mixed bag of a month. Between Daylight Savings, the fluctuating weather, and other circumstances, I wasn’t sleeping well for awhile, but now I’ve more or less adjusted. My comics backlog has grown bigger thanks to a big shipment of manga from Right Stuf, a couple of used bookstore pickups, and the arrival of a certain long-awaited graphic novel. I’ve also started trying out some new recipes for a change.
As for gaming, that’s been going more or less okay since my last post here, and the games themselves have been about as much of a mixed bag. I beat Disgaea 3; the ending was all right, though since learning that the sidequests are as grindy as expected, I officially put it down not long after. Before that, I went back to and finally beat Legend of Dungeon, using a class I hadn’t given a second thought to before; it’s still not at version 1.0 yet, but I’m just glad to be done with a second roguelike/like this year. Speaking of which, I took up Spelunky again and made quite a bit of progress, though it will be a long time until I actually beat it.
In addition to continuing on with Bravely Default and picking up Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA 2 again, that about wraps it up for February. Moving on to March, the first game I beat this month was the hot new release Firewatch. It is a beautiful and (mostly) well-crafted game, though a little bit of a victim of its own hype. The story is not mind-blowing but still decent; the save system leaves much to be desired; and the characters, music, and so forth were well done; but the real star in this game is the environment. Firewatch is set on a small parcel of US National Park land, and each little area within is distinctive in many ways. Aside from the climbing rocks (which are especially gamelike in a certain part), the wilderness here feels like a real place, and is easily the best thing about Firewatch.
This was not, however, the first game I started in March. That honor goes to Pokemon Blue Version, which, along with Red and Yellow, came out on the 3DS Virtual Console on the date of the series’ 20th birthday. Pokemon’s first generation is the only one I hadn’t played in some form, and, given how pricey original cartridges of that gen and its remakes can be, was one I hadn’t planned on ever playing until the Virtual Console announcement was made. I’m currently up to three gym badges and am not far from getting the fourth. It’s been interesting to see the roots of the series: the Pokemon, items, gyms, HMs, and all the other little things one becomes accustomed to seeing in the games. Some of the things that were different were just as surprising; for instance, most of the Pokemon don’t have listed genders, nor is the indicator for whether or not you’ve already caught a certain type present. The player character’s rival is also far more obnoxious than they would be in later series entries, and there is also a greater emphasis on filling up the Pokedex. In general, it’s all still both fun and tedious in its telltale ways; twenty years on, the core of what makes Pokemon Pokemon hasn’t changed much.
Next up would be the third RPG I’m currently playing: Diablo III, via the Ultimate Evil Edition on 360. After trying out a handful of different classes, bitprophet and I settled on a wizard and a monk (respectively) and started our adventure to investigate a fallen star and the prophecy it portends. It’s the loot-heavy, lore-heavy action RPG that you’d expect, and it’s looking to be quite long, as well.
Needing a break from RPGs for a little while, I recently started delving into some shorter games in other genres. First up was Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F. This was my first time playing a Hatsune Miku Project game that’s specifically in the DIVA series, and, sadly, it was not as much fun as Project mirai DX. The difficulty is brutal, the small button icons can frequently get lost in the music video chaos on-screen, and there’s a handful of aesthetic issues that prevent me from enjoying it as much. Chief among these is the tracklist, which is on the weaker side overall, and weighs heavily on more offbeat songs toward the end. A lesser quibble I have is that the “modules” specific to each song are locked from the outset, which means Miku and company perform in their default outfits whenever a track is played for the first time. This is okay for many tracks, but does not work as well with others, especially the elaborate period piece “Senbonzakura”. After unlocking all the songs on Easy, I was ready to set Project DIVA F aside and move on to something else.
The next day, I started Kero Blaster, which is by Cave Story‘s Studio Pixel. It’s much more linear, for better or for worse, than Cave Story, and also more lighthearted, but maintains that same feel otherwise. The characters are all down to earth, moving and shooting are handled well (there’s even a bubble-based weapon that’s actually useful), and the levels are sufficiently challenging. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes old school-style “run and gun” side-scrolling games, and to fellow Cave Story fans especially. There are also two (very charming) free games, titled Pink Hour and Pink Heaven, that serve as demos of sorts for Kero Blaster, though you could also play them afterward, as I did.
Finally, there’s the two classic titles I started yesterday: Professor Layton and the Curious Village and the HD version of NiGHTS into Dreams… The former is my first Layton game, and might also be my last; it’s decent for what it is—a collection of brainteasers in a story wrapper seemingly inspired by European comics—but I’m not exactly hooked. I’m only about a couple of hours in, so maybe I’ll change my mind later on, but I kind of doubt it. Meanwhile, NiGHTS, which I ended up beating earlier today, is a slick-for-its-time 3D action experiment. Its so different from any other game that’s been made, I’m not sure if it has aged poorly or well. The camera’s a little iffy (though not as bad as in certain later Sonic Team games), the story’s more convoluted and strange than average, the routes through the levels can be tricky to navigate, and the game as a whole is short, but it’s got a certain flair which makes it impossible to dislike. Even more appealing is an unlockable bonus in the form of Christmas NiGHTS, one of the most famous and unique game demos ever made. This demo takes one of the first stages of NiGHTS and dresses it up with a Christmas theme, complete with a separate story to go along with it. Unfortunately, unlike the main game, the original Saturn version of Christmas NiGHTS is not included as a playable option.
That’s about all I’ve been up to lately, gaming-wise. With Kero Blaster and its spinoffs, I decided that it might be a good idea to dedicate my weekends to an indie/doujin game (or two) of a reasonable length, which would help me churn through more of my backlog, at the very least. At the moment, I’m considering my options for this coming weekend, and there are a lot of them. I should also get back to the RPGs in between those indies and sessions with Professor Layton. One of my major backlog goals for this year is to put a dent in the number of RPGs I have sitting around unplayed, but I was not expecting Bravely to be this long. Perhaps I’ll have it beaten by next month. Either way, I have no idea which RPG I would want to play next.
Until recently, I had never played a Legend of Zelda game before. This is true. I had gone throughout my entire life never having rescued Zelda, the Triforce, and/or Hyrule from the clutches of evil. With the exception of Twilight Princess, which I had watched my husband play through much of, my familiarity with the Zelda franchise had been mainly limited to everything outside of the games, including the infamous cartoon show, some of the comics, and the characters’ cameos in the likes of the Smash Bros. series.
This changed for good when, after PAX, I got the urge to play The Legend of Zelda, and play it seriously. As I implied in an earlier post, the Omegathon bears much of the blame for this decision. In the end, though, I’m glad I made it.
The Legend of Zelda came out in the US in the mid-to-late 80s, when the Nintendo hype machine was starting to build the company up to incredible heights. Zelda and its shiny golden cartridge helped usher in a new franchise, one which is widely loved and stands apart from so many other games. Often I’ve wondered what the deal is with this series. Why is it so special? The answer is undoubtedly different for each person, but after playing through the original game, I have a new appreciation for Zelda in general.
The game opens with a simple title screen, which is followed by a brief bit of text which establishes the plot. The Triforce of Power has been stolen by Ganon, and Princess Zelda broke the Triforce of Wisdom into eight parts before being taken away herself. It is therefore up to Link, the hero, to find the scattered pieces of this latter Triforce and rescue the princess. What follows next is a list of all the items which can be found in the game, along with a note to refer to the manual for more info. Seeing as how I was playing this game via The Legend of Zelda: Collector’s Edition for the GameCube, there wasn’t much information in the manual for this one game, and little about the items in particular. Still, I managed to figure out most of these details on my own.
My somewhat rudimentary but very useful overworld map.
Upon starting the game, I found myself in the middle of a path surrounded by green cliffs. A cave was in one of them. Walking eastward, I happened upon a forest full of monsters. At that moment, I realized I have nothing to defend myself with. I went back to the starting area and entered the cave. An old man was there with a sword; he said, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” And thus, my adventure began in earnest.
The game’s world is surprisingly big, but only little chunks of it are seen at any given time. There is a map at the top of the screen along with other crucial information, such as my health meter and the number of bombs I have on me, but it is Atari 2600 levels of crude. After wandering around and getting lost several times during initial play sessions, I decided to dig out some graph paper and draw my own map. This helped matters immensely. I must also note that the individual dungeons have in-game maps as well, but these are generally smaller in scope and much easier to read, and thus I didn’t feel the need to map these areas myself until I was past the halfway mark.
Another aspect of the overworld that I noticed early on is its openness. For instance, it is entirely possible to walk into the “Level-5” dungeon when you’re at a “Level-1” state. There are a lot more caves besides that first one, with more people to talk to (and/or get items from); also, the enemies get progressively harder the further out one explores. I can imagine being ten years old again, playing this for the first time and being genuinely impressed by this overworld. Hell, I found myself impressed by it here in 2011.
The wide variety of items available is also impressive. Aside from expected fare like health regenerators (hearts, potions) and currency (rupees, or “rubies” in the NES manual), there are secondary weapons such as the boomerang, which comes back to you on every toss—even if you move somewhere else in the meantime. However, it took me awhile to figure out how to actually use it (hadn’t yet downloaded the original manual at that point), and even afterward, it was pretty much useless until I got the upgrade. One item, the red candle, seemed not to work as described; same goes for the meat, until I found that it serves a very specific purpose.
My note-heavy late-game dungeon maps.
Certain items are needed in order to get further in the game, and become harder and harder to find as one goes along. One of the most devilish tricks the game pulls is the location of the Red Ring, which is the best armor available. On that note, there are (comparatively speaking) tons of secrets hidden throughout the game, especially in the overworld, in that old-school, tough-as-nails 8-bit-era way. There are hints about new items and areas scattered here and there, but a couple of them are awfully vague. Here then is the purest evidence that this is a video game from an era when such things were expensive, and (in this country, at least) were usually bestowed upon children as birthday and/or holiday presents, and thus had to last them for months on end. These days, such deeply buried secrets—especially those that are needed in order to progress—have rightly fallen out of favor amongst both developers and players, but there is, admittedly, an odd sort of satisfaction when randomly discovering something you had no idea was there. Still, that did not at all outweigh the mild frustration I felt over being unable to progress (or get a specific item) at certain points.
The game’s graphics are clear and simple throughout, with a limited palette that gets the job done. The animation is what one would expect from an NES game of this vintage, as are the sound effects. The Collector’s Edition does a good job of displaying everything in HD, though screens heavy with enemies are accompanied by an annoying slowdown. As for the music, it is repetitive. There are only about five or six pieces throughout the entire game, and two of them are heard constantly (on the overworld and in the eight Triforce piece dungeons), but are thankfully catchy. It’s little wonder then that these two pieces have since gone on to become much loved classics of game music.
All told, The Legend of Zelda has stood the test of time much better than other 8-bit games, and despite its more antiquated aspects, is quite playable today. It is a very important title in the history of video games, but it took my actually playing it to realize the weight of this importance. Its genre is hard to pin down—though I think it bears the greatest resemblance to a Metroidvania—but its influence is pervasive in many games that have followed since, clones or not. For instance, with only the first Zelda taken into account, a modern game series that strikes me as being very similar to it without being an outright clone is Grand Theft Auto. The GTA series’ open worlds, loose mission structures, hidden goodies, and so on are extremely reminiscent of its fantasy-based predecessor. I’m sure if I give it more thought, I can find touches of Zelda in countless other games, whether obvious or not.
My total experience as a gamer has been enriched by playing this one title—incredible it must have been then, and still fun today—and as such, I must recommend it to anyone wanting (or needing) a deeper sense of video games’ rich history. Finally, if you do play it, the excellent walkthrough at Zelda Dungeon is a great resource, should you feel the need for one at any point. After all, it can be dangerous to go alone.
Brainscraps Mailbag: So far, I’ve heard from one of the cosplayers featured in PAX Pix 2011, Part Four; a “cosplay credits” section has been added to the end of that entry (and its crosspostings). Anyway, here’s the email from Peter Jung:
Hi, I saw that you did a piece on the cosplay of PAX with a picture of me (as Community Outreach Gordon) on the front. Just wanted to say thanks, that totally made my day. I’m thinking next year I should start putting my email on the brochures, as they were a way bigger hit than I thought they’d be. Or just make a real HEV suit already. Anyway, glad you enjoyed it, I do it for the fans. And to say in a non-aggressive way to Valve, people still want a half life game.
Thanks for your email, Peter! And once again, if your cosplay is featured in that post, please let me know and I will be happy to credit you.