I meant to post here not long after beating StarCraft II‘s Terran campaign, and to devote an entire post to my impressions of the story and campaign structure, but I got sucked back into Dragon Quest IX so quickly again. Also, I’m a procrastinator.
Seriously, though, DQIX is incredibly addictive. I finally saw the credits roll yesterday afternoon, and though the basic meat of the plot is relatively straightforward and shouldn’t take too long to complete, thanks to all of the other things to do, my beat time was 125:27:02. And there’s still a lot more left in the postgame! However, I’m not even thinking about that stuff right now. For the time being, I’m Dragon Quested out.
"Darlin', when I squint my eyes at you, you better listen."
What else has been going on with me, gaming-wise? As I said before, I beat the StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty campaign. The missions had an incredible amount of variety compared with the original and Brood War, but in general, they also felt easier (it must be noted here that StarCraft II‘s campaign has difficulty settings; I played the entire thing on Normal). The easier, more diverse play compliments a story that, while serviceable, lacks some of the raw… je ne sais quois of the previous games. Certain things, most notably Raynor’s relationship to Kerrigan, are less ambiguous, and there is more humor and in-joking than ever before. One minor pop culture reference in particular was, while silly, somewhat anachronistic considering the setting.
Some of this can be attributed to the new structure in place for the between-mission bits. Instead of a dingy briefing room with an android adjutant, where you are a commander working with General Duke or whoever, you are an observer aboard a battlecruiser, with Raynor as your main character, a detached sort of avatar. A more human angle has been given to the story in the form of Raynor’s conversations with his shipmates and others, but in exchange, something has been lost. I’m not sure which approach I prefer.
The character models and voices are also worth mentioning. Raynor still has his smooth Southern drawl and still squints when he’s upset, but his face is no longer lean, but meaty, and he has an equally meaty build to go with it. His hair is darker as well. Kerrigan, in brief glimpses of her old human form, is more fair-skinned than I imagined her to be through StarCraft‘s crude character portraits, and I’m not too crazy about her new voice. Mengsk and Zeratul fare better, and in general, the new characters are well done.
I think I have a pretty good idea of at least some of what the next campaign, the Zerg one, might bring. It doesn’t have quite the same magic as the original (and its expansion), but StarCraft II is still damn good, and I’m looking forward to the rest.
Another thing I played recently—well, more like messed around with: Kingdom Hearts II, believe it or not. Compared to the original and even the low-key GBA spinoff Chain of Memories, KHII felt like weak sauce, dumbed down with a convoluted and contradictory story, QTE-style special attacks, and some Disney worlds that, design-wise, paled in comparison to their Kingdom Hearts equivalents. However, it did have some redeeming qualities, like the improved Gummi Ship schmup sections, a certain visually stunning minigame in the Hundred Acre Wood, and a few great worlds, like Space Paranoids, the KHII home of Tron.
My husband became curious about the upcoming movie Tron: Legacy after we saw a trailer before Inception. Neither of us had seen the original Tron, though I was familiar with its reputation as an early pioneer in the field of computer animated special effects, and so we rented it. Tron wasn’t very good story-wise, but it was a visual treat, and reminded me a lot of its appearance in Kingdom Hearts II. Wanting to show KHII‘s Tron world, Space Paranoids, to my husband, I fired up the PS2 and loaded up my starred save game. Unfortunately, I had forgotten how to travel between worlds, so I did a lot of needless backtracking before finally caving in and looking up how to do it. As I traveled through Space Paranoids—including Light Cycle and Solar Sailer rides—and recalled my experience playing through the story bits, I saw just how much of the movie had made it into the game. In this respect, Space Paranoids is no different from most other worlds in the series, but considering that I hadn’t seen Tron until now, it was neat to gain this new perspective on it.
The last couple of games on my recent agenda have been Plants vs. Zombies and Kirby Super Star. In the former, I killed lots of time in two (successful) attempts to get a couple more Steam trophies. The latter’s last and toughest minigame took me a long time and many attempts, but I finally beat it on the last day of August. I had a good time with both games, though Kirby took a little while to grow on me.
That’s about all for now. The next game I plan on starting is Metroid Prime (the Wii-enhanced version), and after that, Etrian Odyssey II. I’ve also been neglecting my Pokeymans, so I suppose I’ll have to pick up Platinum again as well. Oh, and I’ve added some more links to (where else) the Links page. On a related note, if you haven’t noticed, I’ve also made a few small cosmetic changes to the site over the past couple of months. I don’t know if I’ll do any more such tweaking, but it’s certainly not out of the question, and if you spot anything that looks out of place in the meantime, please let me know.
For the past few years, I’ve been tying up some final loose ends in the old school JRPG space. I never set out to play everything—for instance, I’ve no plans on touching Xenogears, for an assortment of reasons—but there have been a handful of titles that I’ve slowly been getting around to. Last year’s non-port, non-remake relics were Earthbound and Secret of Mana; I didn’t like them, but couldn’t hate them, either. The former was archaic (even for the time) and sported certain horrible and frustrating bits of game design, but its charming atmosphere made it easy to see why it has garnered a fervent fanbase to this day. The latter has a clunky interface and AI, overenthusiastic animation, and a rushed translation, yet the rest holds up fairly well, and in general, the game wears its ambition proudly.
This year’s major relic is Chrono Cross, the PS1 sequel to a Super Nintendo game made by a once-in-a-lifetime “Dream Team”; a console RPG which has since become one of the most beloved of all time. With such a pedigree, Chrono Cross has a lot riding on it. On top of that, aside from executive producer Hironobu Sakaguchi and composer Yasunori Mitsuda, none of the most recognizable names from the aforementioned original game’s “Dream Team” show up here. This doesn’t bode well, but it’s unrealistic to believe that Chrono Cross would equal or even surpass its legendary predecessor, right? As long as it works, there shouldn’t be much to worry about, right?
Well, therein lies the rub. Chrono Cross doesn’t work, not as a whole. Rather, it should, it ought to, parts of it do sometimes, and it contains so many things that could make everything work, but they all fit together in the wrong way, or too much glue is used in one place, and not in another. The result is a goopy mess of wasted potential, a skunk works project that looks good on the surface, but creaks at the seams.
Some military academy sorceress battling sounds pretty good about now, eh?
This is a JRPG where the protagonist adventures with only the barest of motivations even after a few hours in, and with little to no pressure from outside forces pushing him forward; sometimes, when said pressure does come to bear on him, events then progress in a such a way that make absolutely no sense in the context of what happened even just a scene or two before. This is a tale where, whenever the central plot rears its ugly head, it starts out presenting itself in a natural and fluid way, then bombards you, via whatever deux ex machina device happens to be available, with tons of information that confuses things once again before, during, and/or after a major boss fight. This is a plot in which, toward the end, when things do kind-of sort-of make sense now, the last little bits thrown at you are absolutely ludicrous and makes you wonder what kind of crack the writers were smoking.
This is a game that commits one of the gravest crimes of game design: instead of guiding the player whenever necessary, it makes assumptions of them. It assumes that the player will go in a certain direction once heading to a new town with an open main square that happens to have several branching paths, so that the entire place can be explored before triggering the very cutscene that hints as to you why the townsfolk were talking about the things they were. That’s not a problem, but what is is that it also assumes that the player will remember every single snippet of conversation, amongst many dozens of characters and across several locations, that takes place throughout the course of the game. As such, this is a game in which a strategy guide or online walkthrough won’t be wanted merely for the optional stuff (and there’s a ton), but just for figuring out how to progress through the damned story. I don’t know how much is the fault of the localization—the PlayStation era was hardly a golden age for English translations of Squaresoft games—or the writing itself, but either way, a game like this should not have a narrative structure this sloppy.
Then there’s the battle system, which confuses simplicity with elegance, and complexity with depth. This may sound strange considering the genre, but in the Chrono Cross system, there are just too many numbers. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not the numbers themselves, but the types of numbers. There are percentages and decimals all over your average battle screen, along with blinking graphs for your Elements (Chrono Cross‘ version of spells and healing items) and your usual HP indicators. It’s a system that closely integrates turns with three different grades of physical attack, the aforementioned Elements, field effects, and summons that are both rare and borderline useless. Leveling has been completely done away with, but party members can still earn stat upgrades at the end of each battle, which kind of makes one wonder what the point of having no levels is. It’s a highly unusual and experimental battle system—par for the course for a ’90s Square JRPG, when you think about it—but suffers from the same syndrome that Kingdom Hearts II did in that the regular enemies tend to be too easy, while certain boss fights ramp up the difficulty a noticeable amount. Even with the latter taken into account, it’s possible to run away from several boss battles, including the very last one, so perhaps I’m overstating the difficulty there.
Part of me now wants to see Rinoa kick Kid's arse so hard, she'd kiss the moon(s).
And speaking of the final boss, there are two options to dealing with it, and one of them requires an item that is talked about many times, but can only be obtained by going someplace that isn’t labeled on the map and is referred to but once or twice (without any clear indicators that You Should Go There) during the regular course of the game. Using this item, well, that’s another matter entirely. Let me save you the trouble: unless you really, really like exploring, don’t bother searching for hints in the game—if you want the “good” ending, skim through an FAQ to get the details.
However, before you think that this review is all negative, rest assured that there were some things I liked about Chrono Cross. While I found main character Serge to be bland—even for a cipher—and heroine Kid a bit annoying, there were some cast members I genuinely liked, such as Norris. Certain references to the game’s predecessor that popped up early on were kind of cute. For the most part, and despite the ugliness of PlayStation graphics in general, the visual aesthetic was nice. One of the main subplots was largely enjoyable and quite touching, although a certain track associated with it wore out its welcome really fast. And speaking of music, Yasunori Mitsuda’s score was great; I went in thinking that I wouldn’t like it, as I’d been overexposed to a handful of pieces over the years, but the soundtrack as a whole grew on me.
So, in summation, don’t play Chrono Cross, especially if you’re, like me, someone who loved its predecessor to bits and would be put off by an inferior battle system and convoluted, inelegant lump of a story. Just go straight to your favorite Japanese import game music retailer and plunk down ¥3,204 or thereabouts for the soundtrack instead. That way, you’ll get one of the very best parts of the game without actually having to play it!
Some years back, I got on a big nostalgia trip for certain Archie Comics Digests that I used to own in my middle school days. I no longer had them in my possession, but found most of them on eBay as part of two large lots of Betty and Veronica Double Digests and Jughead Double Digests. I bought both lots, which left me with far more Archies than I ever thought I’d own. Since then, I’ve reread the old favorites, and read some of the new (to me) issues for the first time. Recently, I’ve gone back to them, which is when I noticed the video game ads.
Back then, as now, such ads weren’t uncommon in comic books. They could readily be found alongside ads for breakfast cereals like Cap’n Crunch and Fruity Pebbles, sales clubs where kids could earn fabulous prizes, and of course, comics subscriptions. Here are some of the ads that have jogged my memory:
The Little Mermaid handheld electronic game, from the back cover of Betty and Veronica Double Digest No. 31, May 1992 – I can’t recall if I was still reading Archies in 1992, but I was reading comics in general at the time, and recall seeing this ad somewhere. Tiger’s handheld games were ubiquitous back then; for those who don’t remember them, they were little LCD games along the lines of Nintendo’s Game & Watch handhelds. Kind of fun for awhile, but nothing to write home about. I had a Pinball one, while my sister’s had a crude approximation of Sonic the Hedgehog. As you can see from the ad, the basic design of the handhelds had changed since then. The gameplay was probably still meh, though.
Mappy-Land for the NES, back cover of Jughead’s Double Digest No. 1, October 1989 – Here we have the oldest ad in this set. I saw this ad for Mappy-Land in several comic digests back then, but usually on the interior, where it had a clean white background (just the paper color, really). Seeing it here in yellow strikes me as a bit unusual. Anyway, I’ve never played this, but always thought it was a well-designed ad, what with the mouse trap and Apple-esque type and layout. Looking back on it now, the list of other Taxan-published games piques my interest more than Mappy-Land itself; Star Soldier is fairly well-known in retro gaming circles, and Fist of the North Star is, of course, based on the manga and anime of the same name. The original arcade version of Mappy is currently available on Virtual Console, but it remains to be seen if Mappy-Land will show up there as well.
Mickey Mousecapade for the NES, interior page from Betty and Veronica Double Digest No. 18, April 1990 – Here is another ad that popped up a lot; note that it also has a yellow background, but for once, this was purely intentional. Mickey Mousecapade was the first of several beloved Disney games published by Capcom, but it also seems to be among the least remembered. Go on any Internet messageboard to discuss Capcom’s Disney games, and I’ll bet you that nine times out of ten, DuckTales will be the first one mentioned. I played DuckTales back in the day like everyone else, and what I most remember about it was that the control scheme for Scrooge’s pogo cane maneuver was annoying. I’ve never played Mickey Mousecapade, but for some reason, I’ve always imagined that the controls were better.
Various games by HAL, interior page from Betty and Veronica Double Digest No. 31, May 1992 – Finally, no more yellow backgrounds, not to mention the first appearance of 16-bit games! Here we have five titles published by HAL America, which could be ordered directly by calling a toll-free number: Quantum Fighter, DayDreamin’ Davey, and Vegas Dream for NES, and Hole in One Golf and HyperZone for the SNES. Do you remember any of these, because I sure don’t. The funniest thing about this is that also in 1992, a certain HAL-developed game would become more famous than all five of these combined: Kirby’s Dream Land. Since then, HAL became a beloved second-party developer for Nintendo, best known for its Kirby and Super Smash Bros. franchises; knowing this, it’s kind of funny to see this old ad now.
The Ultimate Game Club, interior page from Betty and Veronica Double Digest No. 22, December 1990 – This is, to me, the most interesting ad of the bunch. According to the ad’s text, the Ultimate Game Club carried just about every console and handheld game ever made (at the time), sold Japanese consoles and games, matched advertised prices, bought and sold used games, and shipped all orders via overnight FedEx, all for an annual membership fee. I imagine that for serious gamers in 1990 (at least, those with the money to spend), services like these were a godsend. Nowadays, with the likes of Amazon, eBay, Play-Asia, and others, us gamers are spoiled rotten by the breadth of selection and special offers available to us. Anyway, I also remember this ad very well, and recall being intrigued by the high price for Romance of the Three Kingdoms. At the time, I didn’t think games could be that expensive.
I did a little research in an effort to learn more about the Ultimate Game Club, and found this interesting tidbit on the Lost Levels forums. Apparently, the UGC had a publishing arm called Innovation Tech, but a quick Google search for that name revealed that they had only ever planned to publish two games, The Dinosaur Dooley and Buzz & Waldog, and both of them were cancelled. In my original search for UGC-related info, I also happened upon an auction for a Vidpro display card, which includes the following in its description: These Vidpro cards were only sold to a licensed Nintendo retailer of which we were one of them called “The Ultimate Game Club” but that’s another story. Lo and behold, the Ultimate Game Club lives, sort of. The seller is even located in the same town as the old UGC!
Anyway, that wraps up my little tour of old video game ads. There might’ve been one or two that I overlooked or accidentally thumbed past, but these are the major ones, if not the most memorable. If I get on another comics nostalgia trip, perhaps I’ll do this again some time. I know of at least one ad from various early-90s Disney Comics titles that I’d like to highlight…
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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.
I haven’t been doing much gaming lately, as I’ve been feeling under the weather. Because of that, I’ve put off beating Digital Devil Saga 2 (though I started playing again this weekend and hope to wrap it all up shortly); I like being fully awake and non-headachey for RPGs, especially those I’ve never beaten before. I did start Klonoa 2: Dream Champ Tournament, but am currently stuck on a part that, again, I want to be in a clearheaded state to play, otherwise I just know that I’ll never get through it. Oh, and I gave up on Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, convinced that Sonic Team hates me.
Not wanting to put any more time into DDS2 yesterday, and not wanting to touch Klonoa, last night I dug out the GBA I bought awhile back and the cart of Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 that had arrived not too long ago. Back in the day, when my sister and I were kids, the only way we could play many games was through our friends and cousins. However, my sister did get a Game Boy as a gift at some point, and her small library of games included Kirby’s Dream Land, The Lion King (which stank), and Wario Land. Kirby is good, but I’ve no desire to play it again, as the games which followed in the series give me my nostalgia fix well enough, even though I’ve no particular attachment to said games.
On the other hand, I have never derived such satisfaction from later Wario platformers, so instead of giving more of those a chance, I went right back to the source, which I hadn’t played in at least fourteen years. Playing through a handful of levels last night, what I was most amazed by was how much I’d remembered. This wasn’t a case where I could get through every single level easily, knowing where every single enemy and hazard was. Rather, familiarity was at work. It’s like going back to a place which hasn’t changed much over the years and being able to pick out even the most insignificant landmarks. Only thing is, here, the landmarks are things like Wario’s pith helmet, the Sugar Pirates, the item blocks with the eyes on them, the skull doors, the 10 coins, the bottles which give Wario special abilities, and the ways in which they and many other elements all come together.
So yeah, it’s a real nostalgia trip, unlike any other I’ve ever had, probably due to the length of time since I last beat it and now. The one thing that’s bugging me at the moment is a small crumb caught between the GBA’s screen and the glass layer on top of it, which I won’t be able to get rid of without a special type of screwdriver (I’m looking into borrowing one). Funny thing is, even though I can be picky about things like that, so far it hasn’t lessened my enjoyment of Wario Land.
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