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Month: June 2009

The Final Fantasy VIII OST Appreciation Society

My friends, we are gathered here today to pay tribute to one of the most underrated soundtracks in a video game series famous for its music. While Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy soundtracks are a gateway drug for many a budding game music fan, lost in the shuffle somewhere between “One Winged Angel” and the opera sequence from FFVI is one of the composer’s most consistent, accessible scores. I speak to you of the one, the only, Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack.

Almost as sexy as his soundtrack.
Almost as sexy as his soundtrack.

Final Fantasy VIII is one of the black sheep of the main FF series, as it contains many significant and drastic alterations to the traditional formula. Sure, many of the familiar Final Fantasy tropes are there, but the act of drawing spells from enemies, coupled with the Junction system, earning gil via a salary, upgrading weapons, and other quirks—not the least of which is a sometimes nonsensical and bewildering story of romantic dreams and time compression—didn’t earn it many fans. I myself disliked it a good deal until I played it a second time, in it strictly for the gameplay and armed with a greater awareness of Junction’s nuances. During that second go-round, not only did I have more fun, but I also noticed that the music was pretty damned awesome just about all the time.

Which brings me to today’s meeting. Final Fantasy VIII’s OST is one that, for me and likewise many of you, marks the pinnacle of Nobuo’s work on the series. FFIX, though enjoyable, was largely homage, like the game itself, and Uematsu-san hasn’t composed a full Final Fantasy score since then. The sheer depth of variety on the four-disk soundtrack is astounding, and remarkably, it’s all held together quite well by variations on a few key themes, notably the epic “Liberi Fatali”, the lovely “Eyes on Me”, and the melodic “Fragments of Memory” and “Ami”. The battle themes are wonderful, with Nobuo’s signature touches all over them blended with the types of sounds that one would be hard-pressed to find in any other FF game—the techno-informed “The Man With the Machine Gun” is a fine example of this, as is “Force Your Way”, which features a driving electric organ-led intro.

Outside of the incredible battle themes, there are many other things to enjoy about FFVIII’s music. Take “Roses and Wine”, a soft, dreamy piece with the type of repetitive melody that Nobuo does so well. Or how about “The Spy”, which wouldn’t sound out of place in FFVII… save for the 70’s-style funk coursing throughout. There’s also “Slide Show Part 2”, a better and more polished take on ragtime than FFVI’s “Spinach Rag”, and the snare drum-heavy “SeeD” and “Overture”, which serve FFVIII’s military academy settings very well.

Of course, I’m sure you’ll all agree that any discussion about FFVIII’s music is incomplete without talk of “Eyes on Me”, the award-winning song famously performed by Chinese superstar Faye Wong. While the likes of “Aria di Mezzo Caraterre” and the severely overperformed “One Winged Angel” may be more favored in the eyes of certain fans, “Eyes on Me” reigns over them in my opinion. Not only can I never get sick of it, but it is also remarkably easy (and fun) to sing along to. I’ve heard that this song, unlike the rest of the OST, isn’t available on iTunes, which is why the Society recommends purchase of an authentic hard disk copy from your favorite Japanese import shop.

While we’re at it, I hope everyone in the Society has by now heard Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec, simply one of the finest game music arrange albums available? Many of the best FFVIII tracks are performed by an orchestra on this album, lending an even greater aural depth to what were already amazing pieces (however, as with the OST, “Eyes on Me” is noticeably absent in this album’s iTunes iteration). And let’s not forget what Nobuo’s rock band, the Black Mages, have done with FFVIII’s battle themes. Their versions of “Force Your Way”, “The Man With the Machine Gun”, “The Extreme”, and especially “Maybe I’m a Lion” come highly recommended.

Okay, so I’m a little biased; “Maybe I’m a Lion” is one of my personal faves.

Game Progress: Challenges, Chivalry, and Cannibalism

I beat Pokemon Ruby last night, after some dinnertime frustration forced me to abandon a Startopia session. I hadn’t intended to beat it, but that’s how things ended up. Pokemon Ruby has one of the toughest endgames I had ever encountered, and I’d lost track of how many times I’d attempted it, only to fail. With my trainer battle options dwindling, I used up some good-looking TMs (items that teach Pokemon specific moves), stocked up on healables, and took another crack at the challenge. Failure again. I dove back in, more mindful of certain elemental factors, and got further than I had ever been before, and I went even further than that. Thanks to some fantastic and hard-working pokemon (pictured at right with my trainer), I ended the game as the Best Trainer in Hoenn, and I watched, satisfied, as the credits rolled. My total time was 98:57, putting Pokemon Ruby in that tiny club of RPGs that I’ve spent over ninety hours on, sharing space with Dragon Quest VIII, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and Disgaea, aka the only RPG I’ve ever cracked the 100-hour mark on.

Pokemon Ruby isn’t the only game I’ve beaten recently. This past Saturday, I wrapped up Samurai Legend Musashi, sending the titular hero on his final quest for the Mystics. The last dungeon was long, and although there were enough checkpoints so as to ensure as little frustration as possible, the only savepoint in the entire game is in Musashi’s living quarters, and this was a no-going-back type of mission. Anyway, after one botched, and prematurely aborted, attempt, I managed to get through it with plenty of healing items left over. A certain final boss scene notwithstanding, there wasn’t much to the ending. Actually, it’s probably the shortest, most succinct RPG ending I’ve ever seen. All in all, despite some minor fiddly imperfections, I liked this game. Sure, it was short and there wasn’t much to the story, and the battle system lacked the depth of that of, say, Kingdom Hearts, but it was decent enough. I understand that there’s some Brave Fencer Musashi fans who didn’t really like this sequel, but I never played that game, so I’ve no immediate frame of reference to draw from.

After Musashi, I took a break for a little while before starting up Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga on Tuesday. It’s one of several Megaten games in my already JRPG-bloated backlog, and was the one namatamiku recommended I start first. I’m not more than two hours into it, and am already seeing where the series gets its reputation. Set in a post-apocalyptic world more than a little reminiscent of Battle Angel Alita and heavy on Hindu iconography, it centers on a group of fighters who discover a Mysterious Girl™ and also gain the power to turn into freaky-looking, people-eating demons. As one can imagine, it’s pretty grim. So far, the battle system is very traditional, but not in an engaging way; it certainly has none of the rousing music and little of the visual panache of Pokemon Ruby, and it’s not Dragon Quest or Skies of Arcadia, either (to name a couple). It could ultimately be the lack of difficulty (the game’s been easy so far), but in general battles feel like they’re missing a little extra something. Unrelated, but I found it odd that the characters start battle in their demon form; one would think they would begin as humans and turn into demons. Either way, the human forms are pretty useless, so there’s no point in changing them back once a fight’s underway.

With the grim, disturbing nature of DDS, I thought about starting another game to counterbalance it, and will probably most likely do so now that Ruby has been beaten. I tried to start Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter that same afternoon, but whether due to my exhaustion or something about the game itself, I wasn’t feeling it and turned it off. Before that, I briefly considered Etrian Odyssey, as this would give me both a simpler and a more difficult game; however, I’d rather save it for the next time I’m on a trip. As of now, I’m leaning toward Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon. It’s supposed to have some depth and challenge to it, and besides, those cute yellow birds make everything better.

Source sprites from The Shyguy Kingdom (

Greater Objectivity in Certain Reviewing-Related Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient Mana Fortress Vanished

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now to fight back the urge to play FFVII again…

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