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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I beat Secret of Mana last night after a long, protracted round of final battles—my second attempt at them, actually. The whole endgame, very much including the boss before the final ones, was riddled with bugs that would make text boxes render incorrectly and, most annoyingly of all, the Mana Sword to randomly disappear from the main character’s hands during a certain battle. These sequences alone made it the buggiest Super Nintendo game I have ever played, and one of the buggiest games I’ve played and beaten, period.
Bugs aside, Secret of Mana is full of quirks—some charming, others annoying. One of the first things I noticed, after watching the simple yet lovely opening and starting a new game, was the animation. The main hero walks with an exaggerated bounce that even carries over to his hair, and the shopkeeper in the first town—like many that I would see later on—danced in a spastic rhythm. These wouldn’t be the last odd animations I would see, as the walk cycles for the playable girl and sprite characters were even more silly than the hero’s. However, the battle animations, as well as those for the monsters, are very straightforward, and later on, the dragon Flammie would fly and undulate in mid-air with an almost hypnotic fluidity.
I eventually got used to the heroes’ bouncy, flailing gaits, but one thing I was unable to really get the hang of up until the very end was the menu system. Pressing Y on a SNES (or Wii Classic) controller brings up the “ring commands”, a set of menus. The sprite and girl use four ring menus (items, magic, mana weapons, and everything else), while the hero uses everything save for magic; each menu can be searched through by pressing up or down on the directional pad, with left and right reserved for going through the menus themselves. Oh, and each character has their own individual set of commands; those for characters not directly controlled by a player are accessed via the X button. I understand why it was set up this way—Secret of Mana can be played cooperatively with one or two others—but I was never able to navigate through menus with the efficiency and ease that I have been with other action RPGs.
Battle has its own quirks as well. All enemies are visible and encounterable directly on the field, which I liked, and in general battle plays out like a more action-driven version of Chrono Trigger, but with individual power attacks subbing for combo moves. Although the sword is clearly intended to be the hero’s weapon, I had the whip equipped on him for a good portion of the game as it was excellent for ranged attacks and easier to hit flying enemies with. There’s also areas of certain dungeons that require either a sword, axe, or whip to be equipped in order to progress, and the latter weapon was the one that had to be employed the most frequently when it came to such situations. As I was playing alone, I had to constantly manage the computer-controlled characters both through the Action Grid and on the field, often backtracking when I would press forward only to find that at least one of them was stuck on a narrow ledge or some similar piece of scenery.
The game’s story, lovingly told with the help of distinctive graphics and a soundtrack to match, takes place in a world where the life force “Mana” is weakening. Many years ago, there was an advanced civilization which consumed a great deal of Mana. They reached their peak with the Mana Fortress, which was stopped by an ancient hero in order to restore nature’s balance. Now, an empire seeks to revive the ancient fortress while a boy in the village of Potos happens to come across the legendary Mana Sword, and thus the tale begins. Along with the plot itself, it’s got many other JRPG tropes, all served in an unusually compact package. There are Mana Seeds to seek out, Mana Weapons to level up, and elemental magics to gather. There’s also the odd plot hole or two, and several scenes that could have benefitted from more fleshing out. The dialogue could’ve also been better; apparently, the localization was a rush job by fan-favorite translator Ted Woolsey.
All in all, it’s an interesting, if average, action RPG with a smattering of unique ideas, some of which stick better than others. One recommendation I must make for anyone who is planning to download Secret of Mana via Virtual Console (which is how I got it), especially if one has never played it before, is to get the original manual via replacementdocs. Healing and support items like the barrel are not explained in game, nor are they in the VC download’s own documentation, but they are in this manual, which features tons of information in general. I only wish that I’d thought to seek out a printed world map as well. The overworld and mapping features within Secret of Mana are extravagant considering the game’s age, but flawed, a description which nicely sums up the game itself.
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.
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