Video Games

Home Improvement: The Game: Part 1

It’s been a while since I indulged myself in the medium of video games. But, as any Trash Culture historian knows, while today the argument that video games are an art form is stronger than ever with hundreds of indie designers and games having ample memory to convey complex stories, there was a time when the video game market was flooded with shameless cash-ins, some more bizarre than others. This makes that era of gaming rich in trash culture fertilizer. Hence we have Home Improvement:

Home Improvement (U) [!]000Yep, they made a game out of family-friendly sitcom Home Improvement.  Sadly it’s probably the closest we will ever get to a real-life Full House: Tournament Fighter.

Alas, it’s not a tournament fighter, or a dating sim where Jonathan Taylor Thomas has to lose his virginity before he graduates high school, or a Grand Theft Auto clone where Al, pushed too far by Tim’s abuse, goes on a rampage through the Detroit suburbs’ upper-middle-class white ghetto. No, this was the age when most cash-ins were platform jumping games in the Super Mario Bros. vein, no matter how little sense it made compared to the source material. As a result, you can supplement your Wayne’s World experience by having Garth leaping around and firing lasers at walking drums! Okay, to be fair, they weren’t all like that; as teethgrindingly bad as the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Nintendo adaptation was, at least it actually did have you play Bill and Ted traveling to different time periods and looking for historical figures. As for how they handled Home Improvement…well, was there ever an episode where Tim Taylor fought animatronic dinosaurs with a chainsaw that can produce deadly sonic booms?

Home Improvement (U) [!]018To be honest, the show wasn’t really my bag.  I know it still has a following and actually got some credit for doing a better job of handling the husband-wife dynamic than other sitcoms of the time, but I was never a fan, so who knows? Maybe Tim Taylor was inept at household repairs but was proficient at turning power tools into highly advanced death-dealing devices that can take out entire armies. Now that would be a Very Special Episode.

As for the game itself…it pretty much makes almost every list of Crappy Video Game Adaptations out there, so of course I had to play it. My initial impression was, meh, I played worse. The prologue, which rivals today’s epic cut scenes in its length, tells a tale that actually shows that somebody at least gave ten minutes of thought to the plot rather than the customary two minutes you usually see in these adaptations. Tim Taylor and Al are about to have a special episode of “Tool Time” where he introduces a new line of power tools made by his sponsor, but they’ve been stolen right when the show’s being aired! Naturally they’ve been hidden on different neighboring television show sets, the first of which is populated not by any staff, but by killer animatronic dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures.

Home Improvement (U) [!]002Two thoughts:  1)  I didn’t think, “Wait, “Tool Time” is filmed alongside some show with million-dollar animatronics that are left to run amok?  I say, that’s preposterous!”, but, “Wait, the audience has to sit around while Tim fights dinosaurs with a nail gun? I say, that’s preposterous!” 2) If Al doesn’t turn out to be behind the tool theft and is the game’s final boss, I will be sorely disappointed.

Once you grab your first weapon, a nail gun (meaning the game could double as a very loose adaptation of Nail Gun Massacre!), you find you can actually aim in most directions. The controls are fairly fluid.  But then the crap begins to seep in. The first enemy you encounter is a tiny caterpillar that can be tricky to see because of the colorful background and which can be tricky to kill because, surprise, you can’t really aim at a downward angle.

Home Improvement (U) [!]007

Even that’s excusable, but then you see how much punishment the bigger enemies, especially the T-Rex, can take. It takes what feels like 20 shots to take down the T-Rex, which kind of sucks because they charge at you on top of spewing not very scientifically accurate fireballs and you usually encounter them in areas where you can’t really maneuver yourself well.

But your real enemy is…the stone walls. In Stage 1-1, they’re almost everywhere, hiding both items and sections where you have to go to get through the stage. It probably takes about as much time to smash through a real stone wall as it takes to shoot your way through in this game.

Home Improvement (U) [!]010

And as you might have noticed, you have these obstacles and apparently steel-plated enemies and then there’s a time limit, the bane of old-school video games. Oh, and I forgot to mention, your goal isn’t just to get from one side to the other side of the stage. No, you have to find five boxes, containing Tim’s missing tools which are hidden around the stage. The game does give you a bit of saving grace by giving you, if you stand still for a few seconds, an arrow will point you in the general – very general – direction of the box you’re closest to.  Unfortunately, even Stage 1-1 is a bit of a maze, with multiple levels and quite a few nooks and crannies.

If having to run through mazes searching for specific items, shooting your way slowly through walls, fighting enemies with weapons that barely hurt them while having a time limit dangling over your head already sounds like “fun”, well, what clinched it for me was this little pitfall.

There’s an underground part in the bottom left corner of the stage.  There’s a pit on the leftmost side that looks like it would let you drop down to another section, but you’d be wrong…DEAD wrong (to the programmers’ credit Tim can sort of look down, but it only really works when the game feels like it). It almost looks like you can jump back up to a higher ledge, but, well…

Home Improvement (U) [!]012You have to nab one of the essential tool boxes down in this section, so it can’t be a spectacularly cruel beginner’s trap. It turns out the solution is…

Home Improvement (U) [!]015How was I supposed to know Tim could do that?! “Find the instructions online and read them, jackass,” you might say. Funny you should (hypothetically) mention that…

homeimprovementinstructions

Okay, it’s a cute (and weirdly accurate) nod to the show, but, yeah, real man or not, you do kind of need them to get that you have a grappling hook (and have to use it pretty much at the start).  And that you don’t have a life meter, but that your “health” is determined by how many screws you’re holding (kind of like Sonic and his rings).  And that you can make an arrow helping you find the tool boxes appear by standing still, which I probably wouldn’t have figured out myself if I didn’t have to make Tim stand still to take screenshots for this write-up.

So is there any reason to turn to this game to get your nostalgic 16-bit platformer fix?  Well, the controls aren’t bad and…that’s about it.

When you lose a life you get a quick scene where Tim’s sons revive him like a beaten boxer, so…you can’t even play to get the satisfaction of killing Tim Taylor over and over again.

Home Improvement (U) [!]011

Like with Spiritual Warfare, I’m going to sail this ship all the way to the iceberg. So see you next time!

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective 14: A Very Shiny, Expensive Black Sheep

When is a Final Fantasy game not a Final Fantasy game?  When it doesn’t even for a second include any version of this classic theme.  

Once upon a time, VIII was the undisputed black sheep of the series.  Now XIII, even though it does have its dedicated and zealous fans, has usurped its place.  Even if you are one of the game’s defenders, it’s not difficult to see why.  First and foremost, there’s the infamous “Corridor.”  Throughout most of the game, you will run down The Corridor with no opportunities to deviate from it.  Sure, there are a few nooks and side paths where you can find “hidden” treasure, but there’s only a relative few and they’re so obvious that they must have been hidden by the laziest Dungeon Master ever.  It’s basically all the restrictions on player exploration from and cranked up even further up to 11 (or 13, I should say). Second and interrelated, this is the first game in the series where there are no cities or towns.  There are spots where you can talk to NPCs, but it’s purely fluff with no clues toward what the player needs to do or toward any side quests.  Reportedly this was a deliberate aesthetic choice to give the player a realistic impression that the characters of the game spend the entire plot as fugitives, but I have seen rumors reported that it had less to do with daring creative choices and more to do with deadline restrictions.  Whatever the truth (and it is apparently true that at one point in development the game was supposed to include towns), the lack of towns does concrete the impression that so much of the game is just Cut Scene Fight Fight Fight Cut Scene Boss Repeat.

Now I keep using synonyms for almost because there is a point in the game where you suddenly, like the person dragged out of Plato’s proverbial cave, end up in a wide open space with various environments from deep ravines to gorgeous ruins of modern cities that you’re free to explore and where you can find side quests, hidden items, and new areas to open up.  But it only comes more than halfway through the game and eventually, once you decide to resume the main plot, it’s back to The Corridor.  Honestly it feels more like the game is sadistically teasing you with what XIII might have been instead of rewarding the player.  This is especially because there are so many areas in the game most players would just yearn to explore, including  large sci-fi cities, a high-tech amusement park (unlike in the famous Gold Saucer from VII, you don’t even get any mini-games to play!), and a digital Internet world, but, no, you have to stick forever and always to The Corridor.  Needless to say, after the excellent freedom the world of XII gives the player there just aren’t any words to explain what a disappointment this is.  It manages to feel even more restrictive than the old Final Fantasy games where you have to follow the plot and there are only two or three side areas.

The one part of the game that usually gets as much flack as The Corridor is the plot, but honestly that was my favorite part of the game.  The main setting is the floating, self-contained land of Cocoon, a technological paradise where every luxury and need is provided by god-like beings called the fal’Cie.  The only dark spot in the existence of the inhabitants of Cocoon is that they live in fear of the continent below, Gran Pulse, which is reportedly infested by hordes of monsters and savage people under the control of other fal’Cie who only want to destroy Cocoon.    However, there has been no contact between Cocoon and Gran Pulse in the centuries since a cataclysmic war between the two lands, but that hasn’t stopped the theocratic government of Cocoon from maintaining a powerful military just on the chance that a citizen of Cocoon is “infected” by a fal’Cie from Gran Pulse.  How do the fal’Cie infect people?  They can give someone a Focus, which turns that person into a l’Cie and bestows them with tremendous magical and physical abilities, but there’s no doubt it’s more of a curse than a blessing.  See, a l’Cie only learns their Focus through a vague vision, and if despite that they fulfill it their “reward” is to be frozen in crystal, to be “unthawed” if the fal’Cie needs them again.  If they fail?  Then they’re doomed to become essentially a zombie.  So when a young woman named Serah inadvertently brings together her sister, a soldier nicknamed Lightning; her fiancee Snow; a pilot named Sazh; and two adolescents, Vanelle and Hope, they are horrified when Serah suddenly turns to crystal and they are all given a Focus by a Pulse fal’Cie, especially because their vision implies that their destiny is to bring catastrophe to Cocoon.  Barely escaping a ruthless “Purge” carried out by the military against the entire local populace to guarantee no one who had any contact with the enemy fal’Cie survives, Lightning and the others have to resist the mysterious manipulations of Cocoon’s leader Galenth Dysley, who almost seems to want them to run loose, and determine if their Focus is to save Cocoon or annihilate it.

Really, as much as I prefer it when Final Fantasy drifts away from futurist angles, I thought the plot was an interesting deconstruction of traditional fantasy and “soft” sci-fi tropes, specifically the idea of a Chosen One guided by benevolent divine forces toward a heroic destiny.  It reminded me, in a good way, of how VII twisted and reinvented established JRPG concepts.  Yet there is a valid reason why the story gets criticized, because of how poorly it’s presented.  As you can tell, the plot is thick with technical terms, very few of which are actually explained through exposition.  You’ll actually pray for bad exposition once you realize that, in order to not only keep up with the plot and understand the game’s world but even to have characters’ motivations explained from cut scenes, you have to read these long info recaps after every cut scene.  Granted the info screens from XII were long and detailed too, but the difference is that at least 99 percent of those were just details that added to the backstory and the game world, not details that were necessary to understand characterization and plot.  Not only is it just a very clumsy way to handle worldbuilding, but it just grabs you and throws you out of the game every ten minutes, if you’re one of the few people who cares enough about the story that you have to make sure you don’t miss any pertinent detail.

On top of this, XIII’s world revives a couple of the sins committed by the makers of VIII.  Now I’ll be the first to argue that Lightning is hands down the best protagonist the series has presented in a long time, and her character development throughout the game is actually handled quite well and with some subtlety (although some people, myself not included, might think she comes off as too much of a hardass at the start).  The rest of the game’s characters, however, are just pale imitations compared to some of the rich, diverse parties we’ve gotten in the past.  Snow is a naive would-be hero whose one and only shtick wears thin just thirty minutes in.  Sazh does get a few of the game’s most poignant moments but outside those he amounts to little more than the “I’m getting too old for this shit” action movie cliche (well, that and an excuse to “cutify” things by showing the baby chocobo that lives inside his afro;  you read that right).  Hope gets a major sub-plot about hating Snow for failing to save his mother’s life, but despite all the build-up that fizzles out.  Now the one bright spot is the relationship between Vanelle and a woman who later joins your party, Fang.  It’s fairly heavily implied that they are lovers, and without delving into spoilers, they get one of the more redeeming moments from the story.  Overall, despite some admittedly big exceptions, the characters aren’t all that memorable, and their character development seems to come in spite of the padding-stuffed plot rather than because.  Plus, like the sterile ultra-modern world of VIII, most of what we see of Cocoon is sleek and beautifully rendered but it just isn’t all that “fantastic” and distinctive from our own world.  Maybe there’s more to it than that, but Square-Enix knows we don’t get to see it!

At least the gameplay isn’t as complex as VIII, but it too has its problems.  Like a cross between the Gambit system from XII and the class system from other games, you don’t exactly directly control all the members of your party and instead you assign them “preprogrammed” AI characteristics.  Here they’re called Paradigms, where you can give party members roles like healing (Medic), defensive (Sentinel), using black magic (Ravager), etc.  Although the game does encourage – and more or less requires you – to experiment with combining different Paradigms and setting up the right combinations for different battle situations, it really doesn’t offer as much room for strategy as the Gambit or class systems.  The Sentinel paradigm is practically useless except arguably in some of the most difficult bonus boss fights, and, while XIII is generally agreed to be one of the most difficult games in the main series, more than a few boss fights seem to just boil down to being fast enough to switch timely between Paradigms heavy on healing to ones heavy on offense.  And exactly like X, the system for building experience and learning new spells and skills only gives the illusion of  being able to experiment with characters’ development.  The game does let any member of your party develop any Paradigm the player chooses after a certain point, but the experience points required are so excessive it doesn’t really mean anything unless the player intends to pursue the most difficult bonus boss fights after finishing with the main plot.

Now for all that I can’t say I hated this installment.  As you might expect from Square-Enix, it’s eye-poppingly gorgeous, with an above average soundtrack (despite the crippling loss of the series’ defining theme).  It’s just, especially after the underrated XII, XIII seemed to take the potential of new video game technology for RPG storytelling a few steps in completely the wrong direction.   And you could tell the Powers That Be knew their experiment had failed, since quite a bit of the direct sequel XIII-2 directly addressed fan complaints about XIII, by including actual towns and tweaking the gameplay, but we’ll get to that when we finally wrap up this retrospective.

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Final Fantasy Retrospective 13: Big Country

Wait, you’re thinking, what about XI?  Well, three things:

1)  I never played it, so that alone defeats the point of including it in a retrospective.

2)  I dislike MMORPGs strongly enough I probably never will play it.

3)  I loathe  the idea that MMORPGs can be passed off as regular installments in a main series, no matter how hard Square-Enix pushes it, so even if I did play them I’d probably ignore it just for the sake of making a point.

So, let’s skip ahead to the next real installment in the series, shall we?

Like IX, XII is one of the Final Fantasies that fell through the cracks, in no small part because Square-Enix in all of their wisdom was already hyping XIII.  Again, like with IX, this is really a shame, because XII is easily the strongest installment the series has seen after the days of the original Playstation.   It also improves on the series in ways that, unfortunately, don’t seem like they’re going to stick, which is really a shame because I am honestly convinced that XII offers one of the better blueprints out there on how to upgrade console RPGs for an era when video games seem to be on the brink of becoming as complex as possible.  I do also think XII is flawed, in ways that are difficult to ignore even if you admire the game’s strengths, but not enough to truly undermine the game’s story and its reforms to the series and the genre as a whole.

The first thing that’s remarkable about XII is just how…authentic the world it takes place in feels. Its setting is Ivalice, a world already established in Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story.  There the small desert kingdoms of Dalmasca and Nabradia have served as buffer states between the empires of Archadia and Rozarria, until the son of Archadia’s Emperor, Vayne Solidor, prepares for an all-or-nothing war against Rozarria by instigating the violent annexation of both Nabradia and Dalmasca.  A mysterious catastrophe of supernatural origin completely wipes out the former and leaves behind a haunted wasteland, while the latter is turned into an imperial province despite widespread resistance from the population.  Under the alias of “Ashe,” the young rightful queen of Dalmasca falls in with two youths orphaned by the invasion of Dalmasca, a pair of sky pirates, and a disgraced Dalmascan knight.  With their help, she seeks out the legendary Sun-cryst, a source of magical power once used many centuries ago by Ashe’s ancestor, the Dynast-king, to create a continent-spanning empire.  Unknown to her, however, both she and Vayne Solidor are pawns in a sprawling game played by god-like beings who have orchestrated events in Ivalice since the dawn of history…

As you can hopefully tell from my summary, Final Fantasy XII has a story with an ambitious historical scope.  True, the standard high-fantasy elements of magic and monsters and airships are all there, but honestly they’re incidental to the story.  The Final Fantasy series has never been known for aspiring toward geopolitical complexity, so for its story alone XII is a welcome change.  And the game simply loves to offer the player details about Ivalice’s history and legends.  It’s also a change of pace that, instead of a globe-spanning struggle to save the world, your quest encompasses only a small region of a much wider world and at its heart involves a small country’s struggle for independence and survival.  Even the game’s cities, which are vast and populated by far more NPCs than just ones that give your party valuable information, feel more tangible.

While it took me a while to warm up to it and even it was no substitute for the option of controlling all your party members directly, I did end up appreciating the game’s Gambit system almost as much.  Gambits are specific “instructions” that one can equip your party members with that dictate their actions in battle (for instance, one Gambit is to use a healing spell or item if a party member’s health dips below 25%).  It adds a whole new dimension of strategy to battles and offers a clean solution to the problem of how to stay true to the genre’s roots while offering new and more kinetic approaches to battle systems than just imputing commands on a static screen.  There were still some kinks – among them that summoned monsters, even the allegedly powerful ones that can be recruited in the game’s most difficult side quests, are never that useful – but overall it was a successful experiment.  Also the fact that battles don’t take place in a separate “mode” is also a simple but daring break from RPG orthodoxy that pays off, so much so that it’s actually shocking that it wasn’t implemented in XIII (but we’ll get to that, I promise you).

But perhaps what I loved most about the gameplay here is the mission system.  You have the option to take on a series of side quests as basically a monster hunter, which leads you to whole regions of the game that you wouldn’t otherwise explore if you just stick to the main story.  The side quests are challenging without feeling impossible, they open up even more information about Ivalice’s rich history and folklore, and they offer the player a great way to raise experience and cash without having to mindlessly grind for hours.  Such a side quest system is one of those things that sounds inherently great but it can be done very badly (see Dragon Quest IX), but Final Fantasy XII makes the side quests diverse and interesting enough that it adds to the experience without feeling like just busy work the programmers saddled the player with to fill time (again, see Dragon Quest IX).

Now before I gush too much, I have to admit there were flaws that, while not ruining the game for me, did aggravate me greatly and really keeps the game from reaching the same levels of quality as IX, much less the series’ “Golden Age.”  As much as I love the story, I have to ask the same question so many fans asked:  why the hell is Vaan the main protagonist?  It makes even less sense than Tidus;  at least he fulfilled an important narrative function as the outsider who has to learn about the new world he’s found himself in, and it turns out – albeit late in the game – he is part of the backstory.  Vaan is just an orphan whose brother died in the invasion of his home country;  really you could excise him from the game completely and nothing is lost.  In fact, Vaan wasn’t originally supposed to be the protagonist, but he was made so relatively late in the development process for – of course – idiotic marketing reasons.  It doesn’t completely derail the story, but you will keep asking yourself why the tragic knight famed for treason against his monarch, or the queen who lost her throne and her beloved fiancee to an invading empire and finds herself almost consumed with the desire for revenge, or the charismatic, swashbuckling sky pirate aren’t the protagonist instead.

Then there’s one massive issue with the gameplay, one that will haunt you throughout the entire game, especially if you’re a completist.  Many times the treasure chests randomly spawn their contents.  So it’s possible that the treasure chest that just offers up a Potion or something even more useless actually has a valuable piece of equipment, but there’s only a 1/20 or even a 1/50 chance that you’ll get it.  Sure, there are items you can equip that increase your chances of getting something valuable, but who the hell thought this was a good idea in the first place?  And that’s not even the half of it.  There are two ways to get the game’s most powerful weapon, the Zodiac Spear.  First, you have to not pick up certain treasures located in certain locations and not be equipped with the items that make it more likely to find better loot in the chests once you reach the Spear’s chest, which is in an optional location you can’t reach until about halfway through the game.  Or, alternatively, you can find it in a chest late in the game…except that there’s only a 0.1 percent chance you can get the weapon from the chest.  It’s impossible that they designed this on purpose unless they just assumed players will go through the game with a guide in their lap, or it’s some sick torture of completists.

Baffling and frustratingly unnecessary missteps aside, I can’t help but admire the game’s attention to detail and the ways it tried to breathe new life in the console RPG formula without completely tossing away the basics.  Fans of the series will learn just how valuable this is, as the next series of the installment, the much anticipated Final Fantasy XIII, will reveal what can go wrong when you do try to again reinvent the wheel.

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Final Fantasy Retrospective: The Girly Show

At last, we come to the first direct sequel in the franchise’s history (well, unless you count the obscure anime Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals…), Final Fantasy X-2 or, as I like to call it, Fanservice: The RPG.

Taking place two years after the events of X, we find that Yuna and Rikku have teamed up with an ex-soldier named Paine to become “Sphere Hunters,” treasure hunters who specialize in finding spheres, which store the memories of  people from the past and even have the potential of granting users those people’s training and skills.  Yuna’s drastic change in occupation is motivated by her quest to find “him,” despite his disappearance at the end of X, but her mission becomes much more than personal when Yuna, Rikku, and Paine are caught up in an escalating conflict that may lead to a civil war, and stumble across information about an ancient tragedy that might very well have repercussions that will cause the total destruction of Spira.

X-2 is, in one word, bizarre.  It’s a complete tonal shift from X, opening with a now infamous cutscene showing Yuna performing in a fancy JPop concert:

While there are mature and even dark elements that surface, although usually late in the game, for the most part X-2 is a light-hearted adventure story with almost none of the pathos that defined X – or, really, the entire series as far back as II.  It isn’t just because the game has a team of three women as protagonists that the game has an obvious Charlie’s Angels motif.  Even the game’s (apparent) antagonist, a rival sphere hunter, Leblanc, is treated more like an excuse for constant comic relief rather than an actual threat.

The weirdness seeps even into the structure of the game itself.  Unusually for a J-RPG, much less for a Final Fantasy installment, the game is more or less a wideopen sandbox.  In complete contradiction to series tradition, you start the game with an airship, although in one of the game’s “minor” yet more noticeable flaws flying it is represented by just selecting a destination on a static screen.  You have a set number of missions you can go on, and accomplishing certain ones will open up further missions.  Depending on your point of view, this is either a refreshingly open-ended RPG experience or it means a J-RPG where most of the game is made out of sidequests and mini-games.  There is a plot to the game, and it does turn out to have depth especially once the forgotten tragedy underlying the game’s story comes to light, but it doesn’t really become all that evident until after quite a bit of padding.  So even though the game’s story does hit some right notes, it still comes across as unusually shallow for a franchise famous for pioneering storytelling in console RPGs.

This is almost tragic, mostly for two reasons.  First off, X-2 is not only one of only (now) three games in the series to have a female protagonist, but the only one where all the playable protagonists are female.  Now for some this element might be watered out, if not negated totally, by just how stuffed full of blatant fanservice this game is;  not just with the skimpy clothing of the female leads (especially Rikku who, let’s remember, is supposed to be sixteen at the oldest!), but scenes like the three heroines having a water fight in a hot spring while wearing bikinis and a mini-game where you basically massage a woman into what’s implied to be an orgasm.  Plus there’s the more subtle fact that Yuna’s entire initial motivation in this game isn’t self-sacrifice like in X, but to try and find the guy she loves.  I’m not saying that this in of itself should be considered offensive – in fact, you could see it as a nice gender-reversal of the age-old “Save the princess” storyline – but it is a disappointing contrast to Yuna’s complex and tragic motivations in X – or, indeed, the treatment of the franchise’s first female protagonist in VI, Terra, who didn’t even have a male love interest.

Second, X-2 does have fantastic gameplay;  I’d even say it has some of the best in the whole series. Instead of the sphere grid system from X, the game simply revives the traditional leveling system.  The job system from is once again brought back and used in a way that’s simple to learn but opens up a pretty complex potential for strategy.  It’s also the first time in a long time we’ve seen it possible to customize the abilities of the playable characters so much,a refreshing change.  It’s just a shame that it’s not in service to a much deeper – and better – story.

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Final Fantasy Retrospective 11: Final Fantasy Goes to the Beach

Console RPGs may be a genre in decline, at least in the United States (although perhaps in Japan as well, if Square-Enix keeps trying to force MMORPGs on the Japanese public, but that’s another story), but at least localization problems are not that much of an issue anymore.  Companies are actually far more willing to put effort into translations and English voiceovers, so it’s rather jarring that Final Fantasy X is notorious for its bad localization even among casual gamers, especially for the job done by the English voice actors, and especially for actress Hedy Burress’ bizarre decision to make her dialogue sync up with Yuna’s lip movements.  How bad was the English dubbing?  This one reviewer thinks it’s the main reason why in Japan is even more popular than VII, while in the US the game is well-liked but still falls far behind VII.  On my part, I wasn’t angry or bored the one time I played X, but unlike most of the other installments in the series it’s not an experience I’d want to go through again.  I do agree that the dubbing is a factor, enough that I might finally give the game another try when the HD remake hits America, but I have other issues with the game.  We’ll get to that;  first, let’s talk about the positive.

Most notably, the game has a simple but great premise, albeit one that’s fat with ham-fisted metaphors.  Every generation, the land of Spira is devastated by an entity called Sin.  Impervious to conventional weapons and magical attacks, Sin can only be defeated if a summoner goes on pilgrimage with selected guardians to learn how to summon special monsters called the Eidolons and then face Sin in a battle where the summoner willingly sacrifices themselves.  Sin will be reborn, but at least Spira will be spared from death and destruction for many years.  Yuna, the daughter of the last summoner to undergo the rites, is beginning to set out to literally follow in her father’s footsteps with her guardians, but before they depart they enlist Tidus, a young player of Spira’s favorite sport blitzball.  This wouldn’t be unusual, except that Tidus insists that he comes from the city of Zanarkand, which was destroyed a thousand years ago.

Next is the basic gameplay.  Each character has one of the traditional Final Fantasy roles (fighter, black mage, etc.), but now you can switch characters mid-battle, which seems like an obvious innovation but it does add a new strategic element to fights.  Also, even though the world-building is a bit too much generic fantasy/soft sci-fi for my tastes, it does have a unique oceanic feel to it, which was inspired by Japan’s Okinawa region.  It does go a bit too far, since the tropical environment is more often than not used as an excuse for making women appear anywhere on the spectrum from fanservicey to super-fanservicey…

Being the crotchety old-school fan, I’d rather see a return to a world like that of VI, which mashes up different technology levels and cultures in interesting ways.  Yet does have a gorgeous and interesting world, which at the very least is preferable to the bland, unfantastic world of VIII.

As for my complaints, I won’t talk about the sub-par voice dubbing or how obnoxious blitzball is to play or how godawfully (it’s a word!) annoying Tidus is, because those complaints have been reiterated on the Internet at least 3,072,597,012 times, give or take.  I will, however, talk about one thing related to Tidus:  there’s really no reason for him to be the protagonist.  From a storytelling perspective, it only makes sense from the argument that Tidus provides an outsider’s perspective on Spira, but honestly a much more natural protagonist is Yuna or, if not her, the mysterious warrior with a tragic past, Auron.  I admit that Tidus turns out to be even more relevant to the plot once the mystery behind his backstory unfolds, but still, it’s hard not to play this game and wonder why the player is mostly stuck with Tidus at all.  Sadly, this won’t be the first and last game to suffer from a severe case of protagonist confusion.

My other big issue is with the game’s method for leveling your party members.  The sphere grid system looks pretty and it appears like it really lets you shape your characters’ abilities, but the key word there is appears.  True, it is possible to expand your characters into other roles, but only if you massively overgrind to an extent that would daunt even your typical parental basementdweller.  All it succeeds in doing is wasting the player’s time doing what could already be carried out through a more traditional leveling up system.  Sure, VIII‘s junctioning system was absurdly convoluted, but at least it was different and did allow and encourage experimentation.   only offers something artificially different, without doing something that’s truly novel functionally.  Finally, there’s just the fact that, while there are sub-quests, it never really feels like you have access to this wider world.  Of course, we would find out later that it could get even worse in this regard, but that’s for later…

But, no, I wouldn’t say is a low point in the franchise.  It’s graphically stunning and not just because of the usual Square flash, but because it does have a visually engaging world (too bad you’re forced to go through a straight path through much of it…).   And while marred by bad dubbing and Tidus usurping the role of main protagonist, there is a genuinely moving story about the corruption of institutions that we allow to define our lives and beliefs and the struggle to break with archaic yet self-perpetuating  traditions.  Here’s hoping that when the remake comes out some more of the game’s real qualities will become evident to the English-speaking world.

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective 10: Back to the Old School

Final Fantasy IXRecognizing that some fans were less than enthralled, Square threw a bone to their oldest fans.   What was originally meant to be a side project instead became the ninth installment of the series and a deliberate throwback to the series’ 8- and 16-bit era.  Final Fantasy IX unfolds in a medieval/early Industrial Age world, meant to invoke the first six games in the series while being a unique creation in its own right.  And after the dull present day environment of VIII, the world of IX is a much needed relief, a true return to fantasy.

Yet if Final Fantasy games were American Presidents, IX is the Zachary Taylor of the series.  It’s not disliked; just ignored or forgotten about most of the time.  It didn’t help that Square itself neglected it and allowed it to be overshadowed by a game that wasn’t even released yet:  Final Fantasy X.  That’s a tragedy.  While IX is a nostalgia fest to a fault, so much so that references from familiar place names to even recycled plot points pepper the entire game from beginning to end, it is still in its own right a strong installment that takes some of the best elements of the first six games.

In contrast to the brooding, complex heroes of the last two games, IX stars Zidane, a monkey-tailed thief whose involvement in an ill-conceived plan to kidnap a princess, Garnet, embroils him in said princess’ investigation of her power-mad mother’s ambition to build a massive empire.   Finding Garnet to be a surprisingly willing victim of kidnapping, Zidane meets up with Vivi, a black mage.  However, Vivi himself isn’t exactly what he appears to be, and his own existence points toward a sprawling plan by a mysterious (and flamboyant) arms dealer, Kuja, that could lead to the extinction of humanity.  Of course, despite the more cheerful protagonist, the story hits some pretty dark notes about mortality and being content with one’s lot, even if it is brutish and short.  (And don’t tell me you didn’t also tear up when Vivi watches his fellow black mages fall from the airship like dolls and goes into a despairing rage!).

The gameplay is perfect simplicity.  Rather than the convoluted and time-demanding system of VIII, you learn skills and spells by just equipping weapons and armor, and unique armor and weapons with new sets of abilities can also be created by combining earlier armor and weapons.  It’s fairly basic, but it still requires a certain degree of planning, strategy, and experimenting.  Likewise we go back to the diverse cast of IV and VI, where different party members bring different abilities to the table.  Then there’s the soundtrack.  It’s strangely low-key for a Final Fantasy soundtrack, which are usually known for classical bombast, but manages to be diverse and memorable.  The main theme, “The Place I’ll Return To Someday,” is downright haunting, and probably my own favorite theme out of the entire series.

In short, this installment does deserve a lot more attention than it gets.  It’s not exactly a return to the glory of the 16-bit era, but at the least it is a successful exploration of what made those games work.  Maybe it was hobbled in fans’ eyes by lacking the distinctiveness that had defined the series since at least VII, but perhaps by simply being a tribute to the series’ past IX was in the end an assertion of the franchise’s diversity.  Next time, we’ll get another controversial and experimental sequel, one that wasn’t helped by a genuinely crappy localization into the English-speaking world…

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 9: Nostalgia Dies Hard

Honestly I think finding a good follow-up to your mega-hit is even harder than devising a mega-hit in the first place.  Square had this one game, Final Fantasy VII, that managed to eclipse even its highly successful and acclaimed predecessors and made their biggest franchise define an entire genre for a new generation of gamers.  So do they keep on the horse at the risk of being accused of letting the series turn stale?  Or do they make another gamble?  Or somehow strike a balance?  Well, the answer ended up being the Final Fantasy VIII we’re discussing today, and it wasn’t exactly the right one – if a right answer was possible.

Depending on who you ask, VIII was flawed but was even more polished than VII, or it was (and still is) the entire series’ blackest sheep.  Whatever they think of the game itself, fans do tend to agree that, despite being the best-selling game in the series up to that point, it ultimately marked the end of the franchise’s “Golden Age,” which began with the sound of a growing chorus pronouncing the franchise’s (if not the entire genre’s) terminal decline.  At least VIII also ushered in the era of creepy Final Fantasy erotic cosplayers and slash fic…

Like a lot of Americans when VIII hit our shores in 1999, I was taken in by the hype and the cinematic visuals.  This was a time when video games that looked like movies were still a rarity, and just the opening cinematic of the protagonist Squall and his rival Seifer having a sword duel while feathers flew around and a pompous chorus belted out Latin verses enthralled us.  Sure, it had almost nothing significant to do with the game’s actual plot and it was ludicrously if gloriously overblown, but at the time it was one hell of a sales pitch.  VIII really did show Square’s hubris in relying on overawing players with million dollar cut scenes, which even we gushing fans had to admit when we had to sit through our first two minute Guardian Force scene (or, to use series’ logo, the first monster summoning animation). Still, there was a game there, and it wasn’t a bad one, but is it one that deserves to be remembered as something other than the misstep that killed the Golden Age?

VIII does have its features that even its fans are eager to forget about.  One of them was the card game, Triple Triad, although to be honest I kind of liked it, at least until the first time I found out that that rules could horribly change later in the game depending on who you play with.  Another was the battle system.  Good God, the battle system…to try to put something horribly convoluted in simple terms, you have to absorb spells from monsters (apparently spells in this game’s universe are quantifiable like pennies) and “junction” them to your weapons.  The game throws about 30 minutes of tutorials at you to explain it and it ends up consuming more time than plain old level grinding.  Plus I never figured out if the game wants you to just switch out the junctioned spells with the characters from your party, and if so why the game forces you to use three randomly selected characters in the final boss fight.  Finally, there’s the issue of the plot.  Learning well from VII, VIII promises and delivers on a character driven plot, centered around the love story of outsider Squall’s love for the extroverted and eccentric Rinoa.  The fantasy elements of the plot, however, could have used some more patchwork along with the plot holes, one of which was large enough to literally pilot a spaceship through.  It doesn’t help that in the final chapter of the game we learn that a sorceress in the future Ultimecia wants to “collapse time” – an interesting scheme, but we never find out why or what that will accomplish.  Also the game’s conceit that Squall has a mysterious connection to a soldier named Laguna ends up being treated like an afterthought.

The biggest disappointment for me was just how…unfantastic the world was.  Okay, VI and VII played with blurring together traditional fantasy elements and a more modern, realistic, and technologically-shaped world.  Unfortunately, the world of VIII went too far with this trend, giving us locales as exotic and strange as the street you drive, bike, or walk down on your way to work.  One really had no choice but to wonder where the fantasy was when early in the game your party rents a car to arrive at a destination.

And yet…even with hindsight I can’t really write off this game.  It would have been too easy – and more importantly too safe – for Square to just rehash VII for their next series installment.  And while there are similarities to VII, there were enough risks being made with this sequel too, mainly by selling a game that emphasized the tale of an embittered outsider learning to trust his comrades and how to love over any grand quest narrative.  Still, it’s not surprising that Square decided for the next installment to play up the nostalgia factor, turning a game that was originally meant to be a spin-off into a main series installment…

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