Actually, there aren’t too many pix for this installment, since many of them came out blurry. Besides, although the panels we went to were great, there isn’t anything really exciting about a photo of group of people sitting along a draped table—”you had to be there” really applies in such cases. Anyway, here’s a rundown of the panels and other scheduled events we attended (unless otherwise noted, each event lasted for an hour).
What They’re Saying About You: How Marketing Segments and Targets Gamers (10:30 AM, Raven Theater) – The title pretty much says what it was about. Marketing ideas, trends in research gathering, the peculiarities of marketing to the PAX crowd, and so forth were discussed for an hour in front of a small but interested audience. The stories and insight from Pete Hines, the don’t-call-him-a-marketer from Bethesda, was the highlight of the panel.
Omegathon Round 1 (2:00 PM, Wolfman Theater) – The first round of PAX’s ultimate gamer competition consisted of some madcap rounds of Mario Kart: Double Dash! An extra bit of chaos was added when it was revealed that the players wouldn’t know which of the five screens they would be playing from, and even this was switched up on each new track. At the end, four Omeganauts were eliminated, but for two of them, their fate was only determined after a tie for last place and a sudden death round. The PAX crew stuck to random maps for this round, though the audience really wanted to see them duke it out on the game’s version of the infamous Rainbow Road.
Retrogame Roadshow: Are Your Old Games Buried Treasure? (5:00 PM, Unicorn Theater) – A panel tailor-made for collectors, with the audience bringing up various rarities to show off while the panelists debated their value. Among the highlights were an NES obscurity titled Panic Restaurant and an extraordinarily rare port of M.U.L.E. (I believe it was the IBM PCjr version).
Friday Night Concerts (8:30 PM ~ 1:00 AM, Main Theater) – This was our biggest must-see of PAX, mainly due to favorites the Video Game Orchestra (see PAX East 2010, Part Two) and the Minibosses (who we had never seen live before). Sandwiched in between were MC Frontalot and Metroid Metal. The entire concert was awesome, and a lot of fun. I especially liked the inflatable metroids that Metroid Metal tossed out to the crowd for them to bounce around in the air (though said metroids wound up on stage more than a few times). Most unexpected moment: the VGO playing tunes from Plants vs. Zombies and Angry Birds!
Infinite Respawn: How Gaming Can Keep & Save Your Relationship (10:30 AM, Serpent Theater) – Now here was a topic very near and dear to our hearts: love and gaming. Though many of the panelists’ experiences didn’t quite match up with ours—in part since neither of us are inclined toward multiplayer or co-op—there was a lot else that was the same, and it was comforting to know that our experiences aren’t unique.
Discover the Forgotten Masters (12:00 PM, Serpent Theater) – This panel, which opened with two very amusing Fist of the North Star clips, was presented by the two guys behind GeekNights. Although some of the info presented wasn’t as obscure as they had perhaps thought it was (such as who David Crane is, or what the NES game Spy vs. Spy is like), I still learned a few things and was introduced to some fascinating retrogames, ranging from a gunslinger game (Outlaw for the 2600) to a multiplayer airline management sim (Aerobiz Supersonic for the SNES). I also agree with the point of the panel: that there’s a lot of old ideas in gaming that are ripe for revisiting.
Game Development Secrets Exposed: Everything You Wanted To Know But PR Won (3:00 PM, Raven Theater) – I have no idea what this panel was like… or rather, what it would’ve been like, since it was cancelled at the last minute! Moving on…
You Call That Fun?! (6:30 PM, Wolfman Theater) – This was a lively panel where four friends and game industry colleagues came together to discuss that most intangible of game qualities, “fun”. One of the most interesting parts of this panel was the discussion of difficulty and how it needs to be optimized for the player’s needs; for instance, a bunch of developers who have become experts at the game they’re making are hardly the best judges of difficulty.
King of Chinatown (10:00 PM – 11:30 PM, Serpent Theater) – Thanks to some technical difficulties, this screening was delayed for over half an hour. Anyway, King of Chinatown follows Street Fighter IV player Justin Wong and his rise as a pro-gamer, but that’s only half the story. The other concerns the group Justin was a part of, Empire Arcadia, and its founder, Isaiah Triforce Johnson. Triforce was already known to me as a fixture in the NYC gaming scene—I first became aware of him at the Wii launch, where he was at the head of the line, several feet away from our group—but I had no idea of his role in the pro gaming scene. Without giving too much away, this film is fairly even-handed, but does not paint Triforce in a favorable light. Despite some muddy sound, it’s a good indie documentary, and worth checking out.
Making Art from Art (12:00 PM, Raven Theater) – A panel by a bunch of nerdcore rappers and one fanfic writer about all fan-made derivative works might seem somewhat imbalanced, but despite the lack of discussion about the (admittedly enormous) realm of ROM hacking, fan mods, and fan/doujin games, they handled the topic well enough. During the Q&A, an audience member brought up the topic of female fanworks makers twice. The first time, the all-male panel addressed it well enough, I thought; the second time was redundancy defined, though it was clear then where her tastes lay (mentioning Pixiv but not deviantART was a sure sign), and I could swear she referenced Vocaloid fandom without saying the word once. There’s one at every con, I guess.
Insider Insight: Awesome Video Game Data (2:30 PM, Kraken Theater) – This was probably my favorite panel of the show. Presented by EEDAR President Geoffrey Zatkin, it served as a brief glimpse into the world of video game research and data. Lots of statistics were presented, ranging from trends in the music game genre to the likelihood of games with ninjas showing up on the Wii, painting a fascinating picture of what the video game marketplace is really like. If this talk is repeated in some form for a future PAX, I highly recommend it.
Omegathon Final Round (5:30 PM, Main Theater) – And at last, as “The Final Countdown” came over the sound system, the remaining two Omeganauts took to the stage. Each finalist chose a “spirit animal” from the group of disqualified Omeganauts, and Tycho and Gabe teased the game as one having space marines, racecars, and gazelles. Of course, it was no such game. Instead, much to everyone’s surprise, it was The Legend of Zelda! The goal was to be the first to obtain the first Triforce piece, and their helpers’ role would be to guide them along with the help of an FAQ. It was a really exciting match to watch, and once a winner was declared, the show was wrapped up and officially ended, and we headed out to the Console Freeplay area for some last-minute Child of Eden and eventually dinner.
And now that I’m back at home, guess what I started recently. Yep, The Legend of Zelda. This is the first time I’ve ever played a Zelda game, by the way; as of this writing, I’m up to three Triforce pieces and am currently after the fourth.
Our Wii has been getting a decent amount of playing time these past few months. First there was Chrono Trigger‘s much celebrated arrival on Virtual Console. At the time of its purchase, I also got Toki Tori, an environmental puzzler I’d been meaning to pick up for awhile. Later on, Kirby’s Epic Yarn gave me a nice respite from JRPGs, and not too long afterward, Shiren the Wanderer marked the end of my break.
I didn’t play Chrono Trigger, seeing as how my most recent playthrough was only just last year, via the DS port. Instead, my husband dove into this personal favorite of both of ours (ironically enough, we had named our Wii “Marle” when we had first gotten it). It is, like other Virtual Console offerings, the original game with nothing else added on, warts and all. Therefore, instead of the rich, fleshed-out DS localization, the original Ted Woolsey script is in full effect here. I have no problem with these old Woolsey localizations; the rushed Secret of Mana notwithstanding, he did a bang-up job given the restrictions he had to work with. The G-rated references to “juice” and “lemonade” in bar scenes are pretty silly to our adult selves, though. Localization aside, one interesting thing my husband pointed out in his playthrough was how similar the boss battles are in terms of the number of targets, how they act, and how they must be handled. This lack of diversity is one of the game’s weaker points, and only obvious to us now.
Oh, and before I forget, Chrono Trigger looks magnificent on an HDTV, especially those huge boss sprites. Not to mention the ending which was, this time around, one that neither of us had ever seen before. It was a fun playthrough to watch, and we even learned some new tricks; thanks to RPG Classics’ comprehensive Chrono Trigger shrine for those.
While he was playing Chrono Trigger, I started Toki Tori, and alternated between that and Final Fantasy Tactics A2 in my regular game-playing. Toki Tori is a remake of a Game Boy Color title; it has the same puzzles, apparently, but all new graphics and control options. The goal of the game, a 2D puzzler starring a squat yellow bird, is to collect all the eggs in each stage. There isn’t a time limit, but the bird can’t jump, plus there are restrictions on special moves and items. It’s possible to beat some stages with items to spare, but most of the time, I found myself coming up with solutions that neatly used everything at my disposal. The difficulty ramps up a bit in the final set of stages, which take place underwater and includes a new, albeit limited, floating action.
The WiiWare version favors the Wiimote, with not too much prompt-wise in either the documentation or the game itself for those of us who prefer the Classic Controller. Also, with its forty stages (not including tutorials), it feels shorter than it should be for a game of this type. Still, despite these quibbles, not to mention a rather… unexpected ending, Toki Tori is fun and worth checking out for puzzle fans.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn was the next game to keep the Wii busy. Although I haven’t played the entire series, I have loved Kirby games since the very first one on the original Game Boy. This particular entry might just be the best one of all. Many Kirby hallmarks are present—capturing and using enemies as projectiles, tons of collectables, and an optional co-op mode for starters—but Kirby cannot fly (under normal circumstances), his more elaborate transformations are context-sensitive, and there are no lives, just ways to lose a ton of beads. These differences are just that—differences—and in no way lessen the “Kirbyness” of the game. In general, this is a tightly-designed Kirby with many inspired implementations of its fabric-based theme and one of the best soundtracks ever recorded for a platformer. Only the final boss battle, which could’ve been bigger and better, disappointed, and even then only a little. Currently, even though I’ve beaten it, there’s still tons of doodads to collect (most of which can be used to decorate “Kirby’s Pad” in the hub world), minigames to tackle, and high scores to beat. I expect to be playing this, on and off, for some time yet.
Finally, there’s Shiren the Wanderer, which I came to neglect FFTA2 in favor of. As in the DS port of the original Shiren, we’re in the shoes of the titular silent protagonist, who has come to a strange new land chasing legends and treasure. This time around, his party members are old colleagues, one of which is with you from the beginning. These party members can also be directed to do certain actions, or even controlled individually. Also different this time is how the dungeons are presented. Instead of having to go through the entire thing in one straight line (with breaks along the way in the form of towns), multi-level dungeons are given to you in chunks with as few as three floors and as many as twenty-five, and typically with a brief boss fight at the end. Upon completing most of these, Shiren and his friends not only get to keep their money and items, but their levels as well. If you die, however, you will have all of your non-stored stuff taken away (in Normal mode, anyway) and your levels reset to what they were before you entered that dungeon.
The story this time around is a bit more complicated, not to mention convoluted, with a legendary mansion and mysterious girl as its centerpieces. It all made sense by the end—well, most of it—but the story is mere window dressing for the randomly-generated and sometimes devilish dungeons. As for the other trappings, the music is decent and the graphics are sometimes ugly, but generally okay. This goes for the animation as well, though the slidiness of the characters’ (especially the ferret Koppa’s) walks in non-dungeon areas can be distracting.
That’s it for the Wii games for awhile. Since this Wii binge started, Final Fantasy III (aka FFVI) came out on Virtual Console (on my birthday, no less!) and was promptly purchased, though I have no idea when either of us are going to start it. I also have a few disk-based Wii and Gamecube titles in my backlog. However, the almost-beaten FFTA2 has been neglected for some time now and there’s a decently-sized pile of games for other systems still to play. Time to get crackin’.
Just added Rune Factory 3 to the ol’ backlog this week. Can’t wait to dig into this latest localization in my beloved hack-and-slash meets Harvest Moon series, but it’s going to have to wait until I’m done with Etrian Odyssey II‘s main quest—which will be very soon, if all goes well. Maybe Eternal Sonata, too. Can’t be playing too many RPGs at once.
Even with the new addition, my backlog’s looking pretty good. Looking at the pic I took in January and comparing it with the current stack, it’s noticeably smaller: by eight game cases, to be precise. I’ve only beaten half of my 2010 Must-Plays, though, and will likey have room for just one more before year’s end; I’m currently leaning towards Tales of the Abyss to fill that slot. Then, there are all the games that have been/will be, coming out this season.
Rune Factory 3 was my last “must preorder” of the year, but there are many more I’d love to get at some point. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is chief among these, of course, but Epic Mickey looks really good, and recent positive press for Sonic Colors have renewed my slight interest in that game; on a similar note, Goldeneye‘s reviews have got me interested in that title at all. Even the new Super Mario All-Stars collection is pretty tempting. Strange that the Wii has so many top-notch games this holiday season, but the only reasons I have to complain are time and money. Otherwise, I’m happy to see all this Wii love.
Also, what's up with the SyFy Kids branding?
There’s not really anything left for me on the DS front until next year, when I’m looking forward to Ghost Trick, and awaiting US release dates for Ace Attorney Investigations 2, Dragon Quest VI, and (hopefully) Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2. The same goes for other platforms: Portal 2 (it would be crazy not to play this) and Duke Nukem Forever (it would also be crazy not to play this, but for obviously different reasons) on PC, Rune Factory Oceans on Wii, and… I can’t think of anything off the top of my head for 360. Then there’s the sequel to my favorite Wii game, de Blob: The Underground, which I only just learned recently is multiplatform like whoa, and have been, since its unveiling, incredibly skeptical about, for gameplay-related reasons.
de Blob 2‘s presence on non-Nintendo platforms seems to be a symptom of the motion control onslaught that’s been happening as of late. Sony’s PlayStation Move isn’t something I’ve followed all that closely, but I haven’t heard much bad about it. Kinect is a different beast altogether—even though I don’t plan on getting one, I have been curious about this controller-free device. Microsoft’s thrown a lot of money at marketing the thing, but at the same time, there’s been this caginess, first with the price, and more recently, with the review embargo, which was only lifted once it went on sale. Given the few reviews I’ve read, it’s not surprising: Kinect was made to be divisive. It does some things amazingly well, but lacks in other key respects, and the general takeaway is that it’s an amazing but unrefined bit of technology, plus you need a lot of space just to use the thing. Me, I’m still skeptical about what the Kinect holds in store for future games that aren’t Dance Central sequels. The Wii and the Move are both capable of sophisticated types of motion-enhanced gaming (my favorite being first-person games—finally, precision that can rival a mouse!) and can offer solid experiences with simpler ones because they involve controllers. Microsoft’s early investments have paid off very well before, but it remains to be seen whether this will be the company’s latest success, on the scale of Xbox Live.
In the meantime, there’s a shit-ton of games to play, catch up on, and keep an eye out for. Just like last year, it’s a great time to be a gamer, even with those ever-present backlogs.
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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!