Tag Archives: squaresoft

Right Place, Wrong Time – Games Worthy of a Remake

Kotaku has an article up this week about one of my favorite games:  Xenogears. In it, the journalist, Jason Schreir, was able to ask director Tetsuya Takahashi about that infamous second disc and why the game went to a narrator instead of letting the player experience the moments the narrator discussed. Fans have mostly assumed that they ran out of money, and that’s still mostly true. Naturally, Squaresoft being a big company could have easily injected more cash into the project, but they were holding the development team to a 2 year development cycle. When the team, and Takahashi attributes it to being a young team, couldn’t make the deadline they were either going to have to release the game in an abridged format, or do something drastic like cut content from the second disc, which is the way they went. Back in 1998, there was no releasing a bare-bones version of a game and adding to it down the road via downloadable content.

Given the two options, Takahashi probably picked the lesser of two evils, but it doesn’t change the fact that he basically didn’t get to make the game he wanted to. For that reason, I’ve always felt that Xenogears is a game worthy of a remake. It likely never will be remade since Takahashi and Square-Enix are no longer affiliated so Square-Enix would have to do it without him. And I don’t know how much you pay attention to the current goings on at Square-Enix, but they’re pretty tied up with another big re-make in Final Fantasy VII with no end in sight on development there, so remaking a lesser title (in terms of sales potential) is out of the question. Nintendo, after doing remakes for its two N64 Zelda titles, just announced at E3 that a remake of Metroid II is coming this September to 3DS. Sony also announced a remake to Shadow of the Colossus for PS4. So yes, remakes are very much “a thing” and there are many games that are deserving of them. Since Xenogears is on record as being one of my favorite games of all time, I want to start there:

oh-my-gobrino-xenogears-1280x720

Some improved visuals would be welcomed as well.

 

Xenogears

Orignal Release: Playstation 1998

As I said in the intro to this post, the second disc of Xenogears was essentially a half-measure. An excuse for a remake is right there – just “make” the second disc. In addition to that though, the game’s visuals have aged rather poorly, and the abundance of text begs for some voice overs. I enjoy the modern 2D sprite look embodied by DuckTales Remasterd or the recently announced Dragon Ball Fighter Z. Keeping the sprites would be fine by me. Refining the combat would be welcomed as well and making the “magic” attacks more integral would add some strategy to the non-mech combat. In addition to that, adding more complexity to the mech combat would also be fun as I always felt piloting those mechs should have felt like a blast. Instead, the combat is simplified to a degree with an added resource management tacked on in terms of fuel. Other obvious enhancements would be eliminating random battles and streamlining the interface, though the current one is actually fine. Xenogears is already a good game, so it doesn’t require a lot of refinement, it just needs to be officially “finished.”

Yoshi_Species_-_Group_Artwork_-_Yoshi's_Island_DS

Just Yoshi, no babies. Thank you.

 

Yoshi’s Island

Original Release:  Super Nintendo 1995

There’s some unknown aspect to Super Mariod World 2:  Yoshi’s Island that prevents it from being re-released. Sure, it was ported to the Gamboy Advance but some effects were lost in translation, and yet that’s the version that has appeared on the Virtual Console. The original SNES version has never been made available again, and I have to believe it’s due to some technological limitation since it’s clearly not a licensing issue for Nintendo. Nonetheless, a re-release would be appreciated, but a remake would be better. Aesthetically, the game still looks nice because of its art direction. It’s not as syrupy as more recent Yoshi titles and balances the cute aspects of the franchise well against the typical Mario backdrop. So visually, a remake isn’t really needed, but anyone who has ever played the game would welcome a remake that does one thing differently from the original:  get rid of the crying baby! I’ve read some studies that say an infant’s cry is designed to unnerve its father and I totally buy that. When one of my kids cries it creates a certain anxiety that’s different from what I’m used to experiencing. Mario’s screams bother me in a similar way and I really can’t stand that game sometimes as a result. So Nintendo, how about a remake that just removed Mario? I don’t care if you even adjust the story to explain it, just get rid of him. For whatever reason, all of the Yoshi games that have followed this one have been significantly worse than the original, to the point where I honestly can’t recommend a single one, so a remake of the first one would be more than welcomed now.

35228-Secret_of_Mana_(Germany)-1459171091

The original Seiken Densetsu has been remade more than once, but the much better sequel has not.

 

 Secret of Mana

Original Release:  Super Nintendo 1993

Like Yoshi’s Island, Secret of Mana is still quite playable in its current form. Also like Yoshi’s Island, the sequels to it that have made it west have not been nearly as good as the original, making a remake feel more desirable from that point alone. Mostly though, a remake for this title would be welcomed because, like Xenogears, it was kind of released in an incomplete state. Secret of Mana was being developed to take advantage of the Super Nintendo CD, when that deal fell through, Squaresoft had to scrap some content and change development so that it would play without the peripheral. As a result, there’s some buggy portions in the game and the audio is most likely not realized as it was intended. A remake, with a more modern combat approach, would probably be a lot of fun. Just don’t make it a Kingdom Hearts clone.

Actraiser-pic-06

One of the first SNES titles, ActRaiser tried to be many things and was good at them all, but great at none.

 

ActRaiser

Original Release:  Super Nintendo 1990

ActRaiser was an ambitious title. It attempted to combine the godlike properties of a Sim City styled game with an action-platformer that also had some RPG elements. Naturally, being really the first of its kind, it came up short in some respects though it was still a really cool game in its own right. The platform sections could stand to be refined with more combat maneuvers for our avatar, meanwhile, the god mode portions could really use an injection of excitement as they’re definitely a bit tedious as-is. The foundation is in place, but decades of new concepts and ideas being integrated could create an incredible gaming experience.

37152-Megaman_Legends-2

We just weren’t ready for this in 1997.

 

Mega Man Legends

Original Release:  Playstation 1997

For some reason, I was really excited by the concept of Mega Man Legends, an action RPG starring everyone’s favorite 2D action star. The problem was, no one really knew how to make that game in 1997 and no one really would until 2001’s Devil May Cry, interestingly enough, also a game created by Capcom. Even so, DMC is not a great comparison since it’s more focused on melee combat while Mega Man is a shooter. The original Legends is a visually ugly game with poor controls. Capcom really struggled with 3D controls (see Resident Evil) on the Playstation and it took awhile for them to figure it out. More modern titles like Resident Evil 4 (which even that is over ten years old now) refined that over-the-shoulder camera which would work really well for a modern Mega Man Legends. There would still be a challenge to introducing Mega Man styled platforming, but that’s where the DMC experience would pay-off. In short, Capcom wanted to make this game in 1997, but it didn’t know how. In 2017, I think that’s changed and a truly great game in this franchise could finally be realized, and why not just start over rather than try to make Legends 3 (again)?

 

There are obviously plenty of other games that could stand to be remade, and most of them would come from the 16 bit to 64 bit era. I’ll stop here with this post, but feel free to share some of your own. Other games I considered were X-Men (the arcade game), Rocket Knight Adventures, Baldur’s Gate, Bushido Blade, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Final Fantasy VI.


Forecasting the Eventual SNES Classic

snesWe’re now past Thanksgiving here in the US which means the holiday shopping season is already well underway. The recently released NES Classic continues to be a hot seller, perhaps the hottest of the season, though that seems to have more to do with product scarcity than true demand (after all, children by and large are not interested in a gaming device with 30 year old games on it). That said, no one would deny that even in limited quantities the NES Classic has been a commercial success for Nintendo, something that’s been hard to come by for the venerable game developer of late. Most analysts peg the NES Classic as being pretty cheap to manufacture, and the power under the hood is likely sufficient to support a comparable quantity of N64 games, so speculating on a potential SNES Classic seems like a waste of time:  it’s going to happen. And if we’re going to get an SNES Classic then immediately the mind next moves onto what games will Nintendo include on that collection?

The Super Nintendo has arguably the greatest library of games of any console ever released (not giving modern consoles credit for digital backwards compatibility, of course), so Nintendo has its work cut out for it when narrowing that library down to 30 titles. Why 30? Well, that’s what the NES Classic contains so might as well stick with it. This post is my prediction of what the SNES Classic will include, and isn’t a collection of games I would necessarily choose if given free reign to do so. In looking over the games of the NES Classic, it became rather obvious that Nintendo wanted to include as many Nintendo developed and published titles as possible, likely for licensing reasons. Also, games featuring licensed characters from outside gaming (Mickey Mouse, TMNT, etc.) weren’t included, so let’s assume the same will be true of the SNES Classic. I’m going to order this list by what titles I think are most likely to be included, starting with the most obvious. Before we get to that, let’s quick-hit a few games I think won’t be included, but probably should be.

Demon’s Crest – A spin-off of the Ghosts ‘N Goblins games, Demon’s Crest is a platform title with RPG elements, a genre almost always referred to as “unique” on a game-by-game basis even though it’s uncommon. The game is available on the virtual console, and if you never played it (and considering it was a late era release for the SNES you probably did not) you’d do well to check it out.

Fire Emblem:  Mystery of the Emblem – For many years, Fire Emblem was the series American audiences were left to wonder about. It was the rare Nintendo property kept in Japan, likely out of fear that American audiences wouldn’t enjoy the gameplay. Wrong! This one would have a shot of being included on the SNES Classic if it had been properly localized, but I’m guessing Nintendo won’t want to do that. It, or another Fire Emblem, is a virtual lock for the Super Famicom Classic though.

Mortal Kombat II – Mortal Kombat was a smash-hit in the arcades, and when it was released for consoles it was a huge hit for the Sega Genesis. That’s because Sega allowed Midway to include blood and gore as long as they put it behind a code. Nintendo did not, and when Mortal Kombat II came out they wisely reversed course. MKII was a huge hit, and while it hasn’t held up over the years as well as its chief rival Street Fighter, it feels like it should be included as it was just so oppressively popular. Nintendo has never had a great relationship though with the Mortal Kombat franchise, so it’s unlikely they see it as important enough to include.

Some other games I considered include TMNT IV: Turtles in Time but that won’t be included for licensing reasons. Sparkster was an awesome platform title and sequel to Rocket Knight Adventures, a Genesis exclusive. Mutant League Football, Shadowrun, and Harvest Moon are also deserving of consideration.

  1. 250px-super_mario_world_coverartSuper Mario World (Nintendo 1991) – The original pack-in title for the SNES and best Mario game to date, it’s a no-brainer. The more interesting thing to ponder is how will Nintendo pack the SNES Classic with Nintendo branded games as easily as they could the NES Classic since Mario, Link, and others had fewer outings on the SNES.
  2. yoshis_island_super_mario_world_2_box_artSuper Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (Nintendo 1995) – I loved this game when it first came out, and for awhile after. More recently, I’ve found it hard to get into as a lot of the gameplay frustrates me. Not to mention the audio. Still, it will be included and it remains Yoshi’s best solo adventure.
  3. smkSuper Mario Kart (Nintendo 1992) – Arguably Nintendo’s most reliable franchise today, it seems every Nintendo console since has had at least one Mario Kart game. The only one that did not was the ill-fated Virtual Boy. For awhile, the original game was my favorite of the series. Those who grew up with its sequel on the N64 as their gateway of the series are probably surprised to hear that most people felt it was inferior to the SNES game when it first came out. It’s no longer the best, but it’s still playable and the battle mode is still a lot of fun.
  4. attpThe Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo 1992) – The best game of the series, and perhaps the best game ever? I suppose I could have said the same of Super Mario World, and I could say that about more SNES titles which further illustrates how awesome the system was. This game will be included, and it will be enjoyed by any who purchase it.
  5. 250px-star_fox_snesStar Fox (Nintendo 1993) – Nintendo’s flashy on-rails shooter, the Super FX powered Star Fox was a pretty big deal at the time, even if it’s one of Nintendo’s lesser franchises these days. The game was so good that Nintendo has essentially remade and released it several times with minor alterations. It’s probably too much to ask for Nintendo to include the never released Star Fox 2 on this set.
  6. 250px-smetroidboxSuper Metroid (Nintendo 1994) – If any of the games on the NES Classic had a “Super” version on the SNES, then it’s probably fair to assume they’ll make it to the SNES Classic. Not that Super Metroid needs to be included for that reason, it needs to be included because it too has a claim to greatest game ever made. It was very influential, especially for the Castlevania series, and the only downside to including it is that it might make people a little depressed when they think about how the franchise is treated by Nintendo today.
  7. kss_boxartKirby Super Star (Nintendo 1996) – Another late arrival for the SNES, Kirby Super Star takes what was good about the NES game and multiplies it tenfold. Easily Kirby’s best game, Super Star is a bit of a forgotten gem on the SNES and holds up quite well. It also features some fun 2-player action so be prepared to have to hunt down an additional controller.
  8. snes_f-zero_boxartF-Zero (Nintendo 1991) – Nintendo kind of ignored the racing genre with the NES, so it’s not surprising they rectified that with the SNES. Racing games were one of those genres that really benefitted with the move to the SNES as the hardware could finally keep up with the speed needed to make these type of games as fun as they could be. F-Zero was a flashy title with its futuristic visuals and also plenty difficult. Not one of my favorites, but I’d be shocked if it was left out.
  9. pilotwings_boxPilotwings (Nintendo 1991) – Pilotwings was kind of the debut of the Nintendo developed tech demo released with all of their future console launches to show off the new console’s capabilities. It was to the SNES what Wii Sports was to the Wii. It’s basically a collection of mini games, and personally I remember all of my friends looking down on this title. I haven’t played it in years so I can’t say if I’d enjoy it more now, but since Nintendo developed it they’ll likely include it on the SNES Classic.
  10. dkc_snes_boxartDonkey Kong Country (Nintendo 1994) – The title that reinvented and brought modern relevance to the Donkey Kong character, Donkey Kong Country was a visual wonder when it was first released and an instant hit. Some people love this franchise more than the 2D Mario one. I’m not one of them, but there’s no way Nintendo doesn’t include this one.
  11. 250px-dk_country_2Donkey Kong Country 2 (Nintendo 1995) – Nintendo had three main series Mario games to help pad the NES Classic, chances are they’ll look to DK to help do the same for the SNES Classic. Some think this one is the best of the SNES trilogy of DKC games, I have no real opinion on the matter as I don’t remember even playing this one.
  12. 250px-dkc3_snes_boxartDonkey Kong Country 3 (Nintendo 1996) – This game arrived really late for the SNES, though if memory serves it still sold all right. This one might not make the SNES Classic, it’s certainly the least likely of the three, but since Nintendo wants to put as many of their games on the system as possible it feels like a safe assumption to include it here.
  13. superpunchoutboxSuper Punch-Out!! (Nintendo 1994) – Punch-Out!! was immensely popular for the NES, Super Punch-Out!! was less so for the SNES. It wasn’t bad by any means, and it felt more like the arcade version of the original, but aside from a visual upgrade it didn’t really feel much improved. I think part of that was the new perspective of being behind Little Mac made him feel like more of an equal to his opponents as opposed to being a diminutive underdog.
  14. 2363827-snes_finalfantasyiiFinal Fantasy II (Square 1991) – Now we’re into the non-Nintendo games, and this is actually where the list really begins for me as far as ordering by most likely. The first 13 could be ordered however you want, aside from maybe DKC3, they’re all going to be included for sure. The SNES was the console where the JRPG really took off, and it’s kind of where Final Fantasy was truly born (at least in the West). Final Fantasy III is the better game, but for some reason I suspect that II is more likely to be included if only one is.
  15. chrono_triggerChrono Trigger (Square 1995) – Another one of those “best ever” contenders, Chrono Trigger is as beloved as any game in the Final Fantasy series, even if it never took off as a franchise on its own. The only thing that would keep it from being included is if Square-Enix wants to be protective of how often they re-release the game. Or if they want too much money in the form of royalties, which could be a problem since they made a lot of awesome SNES games…
  16. 250px-secret_of_mana_boxSecret of Mana (Square 1993) – …like Secret of Mana! Lazily referred to as a Zelda clone, Secret of Mana is a delightful action RPG and the type of game Square-Enix has seemingly forgotten how to make. The sequel was also excellent, but never released outside of Japan. Following that though, virtually every other game in the series has been a shallow hack n’ slash and a major disappointment. Thankfully, this one holds up so well we really don’t need another (though Square-Enix really should just finally localize the damn sequel for some kind of release).
  17. 250px-super-bomberman-box-art-snes-palSuper Bomberman (Hudson Soft 1993) – The ultimate party game for the SNES, Super Bomberman was probably my most rented title for sleepovers and such as the four-player mode rocked. If Nintendo does include this title, and it should, it needs to make sure the SNES Classic can handle four-players, even if it means messing with the aesthetics of the system by including four controller ports on the front.
  18. 35805c88363c1f2ef17b39288c11676f-650-80Street Fighter II (Capcom 1992)- Capcom’s fighting game is almost certain to make an appearance, it’s just a question of what version. They should probably just go with Super Street Fighter II, but maybe they think the importance of the original makes it the more worthy title.
  19. mega_man_x_coverartMega Man X (Capcom 1993) – Mega Man was huge for the NES, so he’ll be included on the SNES Classic even if he played a lesser role for the console. His one main entry, Mega Man 7, is regarded as one of the worst in the series so Capcom will probably push for Mega Man X, and it should. Mega Man X was what the character needed to remain relevant and remains an excellent Mega Man game to this day.
  20. super_castlevania_iv_north_american_snes_box_artSuper Castlevania IV (Konami 1991) – another NES tentpole franchise, Castlevania would see its stock plummet in the 16 bit era, even though Super Castlevania was an excellent game. It’s one of the last traditional Castlevania titles as Symphony of the Night would soon follow with its Metroidvania gameplay becoming the preferred style of future titles in the series.
  21. supermariorpgsnescoverartusSuper Mario RPG (Nintendo/Square 1996) – could Mario do RPGs as well as he could platformers? If Square is handling most of the game design, then yeah of course he can! Super Mario RPG was a surprise hit and remains a fun game to this day. In a way, it might be more likely to appear on this collection than the Final Fantasy games as at least Nintendo shares publishing rights with Square-Enix on this one.
  22. contra_iii_game_coverContra III (Konami 1992) – Probably the last relevant title in the Contra series, Contra III was more of the same which is what people were happy to have at the time. Being a sequel to an NES Classic game is what guarantees it a spot here.
  23. 1130115-snessimcityfSim City (Nintendo 1991) – Another Nintendo published title but with the royalties a little messy compared to a Mario or Zelda game. Sim City was another surprise hit in that there was skepticism the city builder simulation would find an audience on a home console. It did and it did well with its success leading to other sim games being released for the SNES, including “classics” like Sim Ant…
  24. 2363896-snes_killerinstinct_3Killer Instinct (Midway/Rareware/Nintendo 1995) – Nintendo, and Rare’s, answer to Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct was a perfectly acceptable fighter for the era. Rare, and now Microsoft, hold the publishing rights for the franchise and I don’t know how that affects the original game’s inclusion. If Nintendo needs to only split royalties with Microsoft/Rare then I think it will be included. Anything more and it probably won’t be.
  25. earthbound_boxEarthbound (Nintendo 1995) – Nintendo’s answer to Dragon Quest, Earthbound (known as Mother 2 outside the US) has never been real popular with Nintendo. It’s the only title in the series to be released outside Japan even though Nintendo fans seem to adore it for its quirky humor and real world setting. It’s a game that has amassed a cult following over the years, though personally I don’t think it’s one that really lives up to the reputation. It’s a Nintendo game though, so it will most likely find a way onto the SNES Classic.
  26. 510ahyhdidl-_sx300_Final Fantasy III (Square 1994) – You know it, I know it, and I bet even Nintendo knows that this game should definitely be included among the top SNES games released. Will it make it to the SNES Classic though is a harder question. If Final Fantasy II does, then it may not, even though it seems ludicrous to split those two games up.
  27. 250px-tetris_attack_box_artTetris Attack (Nintendo 1996) – Many have tried to improve upon the formula of Tetris, and few have succeeded. Tetris Attack found a way with a competitive two-player mode that’s a blast to play. It’s been ripped off for other puzzle games like Puzzle Fighter and Pokemon Puzzle League. And thankfully there’s no Super Dr. Mario to bump this one from the collection.
  28. actraiser_coverartActraiser (Enix 1991) – A legitimately unique game that combines the sim elements of a world builder with the action RPG gaming of Castlevania, Demon’s Crest, and so forth. Few games have tried to do what Actraiser did (Dark Cloud being the only one I can recall off the top of my head) and even though it wasn’t an immensely popular title, it feels like one that received its due in the years since so if Nintendo leaves it out I’d actually be pretty surprised.
  29. 2364727-snes_zombiesatemyneighborsZombies Ate My Neighbors (Konami 1993) – This game was so thematically outrageous at the time that it couldn’t be ignored. People remember it, even though it never turned into a bankable franchise or anything (though zombies in general certainly have). It’s extremely memorable as a Super Nintendo game, so much so that it seems like Nintendo won’t be able to ignore it.
  30. 250px-the_legend_of_the_mystical_ninja_coverartThe Legend of the Mystical Ninja (Konami 1992) – Our last title is from a franchise that was far more popular in Japan than the US, but worth including. The co-op play was some of the best on the system. I never owned the game, but I remember renting it multiple times as it was a lot of fun to have around when friends were over for the night.

So there you have it, my prediction of what Nintendo will do for the eventual SNES Classic. In addition to the games, hopefully Nintendo smartens up and doesn’t pull the intentional scarcity card again. It would also be nice to see Nintendo correct some of the issues the NES Classic has such as the lack of expandable software and absurdly short controller cords. My guess is that the NES Classic isn’t natively able to add additional games so that Nintendo doesn’t cut into its own Virtual Console market, but that just seems like a bad move on their part. If the NES Classic continues to sell as well as it has been then I suppose Nintendo will have no reason to change anything. And even though I feel pretty good about this list of games as a prediction, it still feels like Nintendo will try to cram more of their own games into the console than what I’ve included. I’ll put it on record though, if they include Mario is Missing then I’m not buying the damn thing.


Final Fantasy X HD Remaster

Final-Fantasy-X-X-2-HD-Remaster-1Over the years I’ve talked a lot about Final Fantasy but I’ve never posted a game review for any of the numeric titles in the long-running series. Well that ends today as I post my thoughts on the somewhat recently released Final Fantasy X HD Remaster.

One opinion I have stated on more than one occasion here is my affinity for Final Fantasy X, the Playstation 2 RPG released back in 2001. I consider X the last great Final Fantasy game to be released while some want to lump it in with the lesser received post Final Fantasy VII games. Some of these games have been a bit underwhelming while some of the criticism is likely born from the series’ rise in popularity. Prior to VII, Final Fantasy was a niche title with a small but devoted following. Once a bandwagon becomes crowded, the older fans tend to shun the new ones. It happens all of the time within the music industry and video games are no stranger to it as well. Final Fantasy X though took what made the series so great and made some noteworthy improvements to the tried-and-true formula. It took chances too, by eliminating the world map and adding spoken dialogue for the first time in the series. The game was a commercial and critical success even if it’s not often cited as one of the best Final Fantasy games in the series. And since it’s a PS2 game, upgrading the visuals to high definition and re-releasing it makes sense and the world is better for it!

A composite shot featuring the original game merged with the HD version.

A composite shot featuring the original game merged with the HD version.

For those who missed out when the game debuted over ten years ago, Final Fantasy X is a pretty familiar experience for those who played any of the nine previous titles in the series. Players maneuver a character amongst towns, dungeons, and open areas to get from one place to another. Players can interact and speak with other characters while non-interactive moments move the story along. In battle, characters take turns attacking, stealing, casting spells, or defending in an effort to win the fight. A menu screen is used to outfit characters with weapons and armor to boost their stats and make them more formidable foes or to tailor their character for a certain approach. Where X departed from past games was with just about everything else. Some changes, like the new Conditional Turn-Based Battle, are subtle but different enough to leave an impression. In many of the previous games, each character had a meter that would fill gradually during battle before an action could be taken. This was dubbed the Active Time Battle System by developer Squaresoft. The Conditional Turn-Based Battle creates a list of both enemies and player characters determining the order of battle. The list can be altered by certain spells, actions, and effects but overall it creates a more tactical experience, which is enhanced further with the ability to swap characters in and out of battle on the fly. The removal of the world map was a change that felt big at the time but played much smaller. Removing the world map just meant that each area of the game world was integrated seamlessly with one another. The world map had really only existed in prior games as a technological limitation or as a trick to make the game feel bigger than it is. When it was first announced that Final Fantasy X would not include a world map scenario it seemed scary, almost unthinkable, but it ended up being a change for the better.

The main cast.

The main cast.

A much bigger change for Final Fantasy X’s gameplay is the Sphere Grid. Just about every Final Fantasy game has its own unique way of evolving the characters throughout the game to make them better suited for combat. In the original game it was all based on experience points and each character had its own special class be it warrior or black mage. Final Fantasy III and V both made use of what was termed the Job System where the player was free to assign a character’s class making it possible to have a party of all black mages if one so desired. Other additions over the years were the Espers in Final Fantasy VI which allowed characters to learn spells and abilities while being paired with a unique creature, VII had the materia system which was dependent on amassing a bunch of materia and weapons with ample space to use it, and so on. Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid was perhaps the most radical departure from the other games. Characters no longer earned experience points, something that was common to all prior Final Fantasy games, and instead earn sphere points. Once a character gains enough sphere points, he gains a sphere level. One sphere level can then be spent to move the character one space on the Sphere Grid. The grid itself is outfitted with several nodes that can be activated with special spheres collected during battle. These nodes can have anything from a point of strength to a spell like Flare. All character evolution takes place on the Sphere Grid. It’s the only way to improve a character’s base stats, like strength, defense, magic, and so on, as well as hit points and abilities. No spells or special moves need to be acquired by beating a special boss or finding it as a prize in some mini game, it’s all right there on the Sphere Grid for you to see from the start. Of course, acquiring a spell like Ultima is going to take lots of time and many sphere levels to get there, but you’re free to plot your own course. The Sphere Grid in the original game starts each character in their own section, and while you’re free to do with them as you please, the game clearly intends for Lulu to be a black mage, Rikku a thief, and so on.

It may not be PS3 quality, but the game is far from an eyesore.

It may not be PS3 quality, but the game is far from an eyesore.

For the international edition of Final Fantasy X, some additional content was added and this HD remaster includes all of it. The Sphere Grid from the original game is present, but if you wish, you can opt to use the expert grid. This grid starts every character right in the center freeing them up to pursue whatever abilities they wish. In general, a balanced attack is preferred and most anybody who plays this game is going to take a character like Lulu down the black mage path, but I found there was more opportunity to diversify with this version of the grid than before. I was able to have Yuna, the summoner/white mage of the group, bounce between the white and black mage paths giving her some punch in battle she didn’t have when I played the game for the first time. Khimari, the blue mage of the original game, was basically my version of the red mage from III and V as I was able to grant him white and black magic while keeping his base stats high enough to make him a suitable physical attacker early on. Like the red mage of prior games, he would eventually outgrow his usefulness but for the early part of the game he was a frequent contributor.

Another big change for X was with the summons. Squaresoft seemed to always be searching for a way to make the summon magic more interactive. Once VII arrived with the Playstation it meant the summons could be more of a spectacle as full-motion video sequences captured the awesome power of Bahamut and did so with gusto. For X, Square opted to let the players control the summoned beasts, dubbed aeons, directly. They’re fully integrated into the plot of the game and only Yuna can summon one at a time. When she does, the rest of the party vacates the battlefield and the aeon takes over. Their overdrive meter fills rapidly (X’s version of the limit break) and once full they can unleash the mega attacks we’re used to seeing. Outside of battle, a special item allows the player to improve the base stats of the aeons or even teach them new spells and abilities. They’re limited in their usefulness, but at the very least they make good cannon fodder against enemies that have devastating special attacks as once an aeon dies in battle they’re just replaced by the battle party.

My journey through Spira was much as I remembered it. The HD upscaling is welcome though it does not disguise the fact that this is a PS2 game. SquareEnix apparently re-did the faces of Tidus and Yuna to make them more expressive but they’re still a little wooden by today’s standards. The game is only noticeably better looking when compared directly with the PS2 game. Otherwise, it’s bright and colorful setting is still mostly pleasing to the eye. The game really only shows its age with the limited animations. There’s a sequence where the characters ride snow mobiles and it’s painfully obvious that the game could not handle animated hair, aside from a ponytail or something, so Tidus’ hairstyle remains frozen in place while he zips along. You’ll also see the same character models used over and over among non-player characters and enemies. The audio is quite nice though and the game’s musical score is fitting for a Final Fantasy title. The voice acting was somewhat maligned the first time around, but I found no obvious faults with it then or now. The poor lip-syncing is still an issue and can be distracting, though I found it never took me out of a scene completely.

The game's stoyline has room for cheer and also for more emotionally weighty moments.

The game’s stoyline has room for cheer and also for more emotionally weighty moments.

Final Fantasy X HD was released for the PS3 and the Vita with the two platforms supporting cross-save functionality but not cross-buy. As such, I only purchased the game for the Vita, and it’s been a great experience taking Final Fantasy X on the go. The load times have been the only detraction. I do not know what the situation is like on the PS3, but on the Vita there’s a delay of a couple seconds going from the field to the menu as well as when going from one screen to another. It took some getting used to and I still don’t understand why the Vita’s load times aren’t better considering the medium is flash-based. I got used to the load times, but it’s still annoying. There’s also no soft reset function that I could find which stinks because there are multiple screens to navigate just to get to the game. One area of the game that wasn’t as good as I remembered was Blitz Ball, the underwater sport that’s a popular mini game. It’s still fun, but it’s so painfully easy and you have to play hours of it to acquire some special items for Wakka. They’re totally optional, but who is going to pass on getting Wakka’s best weapon?

Other than the new Sphere Grid, the other additions of the international version of the game are less impactful but still welcome. The most obvious is the addition of the Dark Aeons, optional boss battles that spring up very late in the game. These represent a new challenge for veteran players. Defeating them is purely for pride as there’s nothing of importance gained from toppling them. Beating all of them will likely mean maxing out the base stats of most of the characters in your party, which means lots and lots of level grinding. I had every intention of beating them, which is one reason why this post took nearly three months for me to get to, but eventually I just got too bored. I beat some of the easiest ones, one of which I had to beat to regain access to one of the game’s towns, but never attempted the toughest. There’s really not that much strategy to beating them, it’s more an investment of time crafting armor and weapons that best suit the confrontation, but it’s cool that it’s there. Another addition is the Eternal Calm, which is basically an epilogue. It’s a fifteen minute movie meant to serve as the bridge between this game and its direct sequel, but it’s pretty unnecessary. I watched it once, and I’ll probably never watch it again, as the early parts of Final Fantasy X-2 do a good enough job of bridging the two games.

Plot-wise, I enjoyed Final Fantasy X just as much this time around as I did in 2001. It’s likable cast of characters are charming and portrayed well. The game actually feels pretty quick even though it will take most players 40 hours to beat the main plot (defeating all of the optional bosses will likely take over 100) and I attribute that to the game’s exceptional pacing. I very much enjoy the fact that the game has its own distinct look. It’s not a medieval or steam punk setting but more of an asian one with a lot of subtropical climates as well. I find it kind of funny that this was the first Final Fantasy game to have asian-looking characters considering they were all made in Japan, as opposed to a european look. Mostly, this is just a really well-executed Final Fantasy title and I had a great time with it. And since it comes bundled with a copy of Final Fantasy X-2, my adventure in Spira is not over yet. Look for a post on that game in another two to three months.


Final Fantasy VII – To Remake, or Not to Remake?

images-190In the gaming community, a popular topic of conversation seems to always stem around remakes.  They’re fairly popular and have become more so due in large part to the rising price of game development and the profitable business known as nostalgia.  Games cost a ton of money these days to develop, and with little change in the pricing structure of games once they hit retail, profit margins aren’t what they used to be.  I haven’t seen any hard studies on the matter, but I would assume that publishers make less per game sold today than they did twenty years ago.  Just look at the credits for a game developed in 1994 and compare that to a modern game.  I recently completed Assassin’s Creed 4 on the PS4 and the end credits ran as long, if not longer, than most films.  All of those people have to be paid, so either they’re getting paid peanuts (and many probably are) or the take-home is much smaller than it used to be.  Remakes allow developers and publishers to take existing software, sink little resources into the remaking of it, and release it at a comparable price to a new game.  Square-Enix is one such company that has made a habit out of this strategy with its Final Fantasy franchise, but one game has yet to be remade in any sort of way despite being arguably the most popular game every put out by Square:  Final Fantasy VII.

Whenever remakes are discussed, the potential for a Final Fantasy VII remake coming up is inevitable.  Part of that is due to the game’s immense popularity, and part of it is due to the fact that Square-Enix used the game’s likeness to create a Playstation 3 tech demo years ago.  Such a strategy was a huge tease to fans of the game seeking a remake.  Square-Enix will even bring it up seemingly on an annual basis and offer reasons for why it hasn’t happened while leaving the door open to the possibility just a crack, giving fans legitimate or false hope, depending only on one’s perspective.  The supporters for the game are vast in numbers, though there is a contingent that has risen up over the years downplaying the impact of Final Fantasy VII.  That’s mostly due to the fact that Final Fantasy VII was the jumping-on point for many fans.  Much like when a band gets popular with a specific record, the old fans tend to want to keep a part of that band for themselves and look down upon fans of the newer material.  Final Fantasy VII is a great game, and many of its detractors exist just to downplay it in comparison with a prior game, or just never liked Japanese RPGs to begin with.

Many fans feel like Square could do a better job with FFVII if given another shot, mostly because Cloud looks like this in the original game.

Many fans feel like Square could do a better job with FFVII if given another shot, mostly because Cloud looks like this in the original game.

Many Final Fantasy games have received either a port or a remake over the years, with the most recent being the HD release of the PS2 games Final Fantasy X and and X-2, set for release next month on the PS3 and Vita.  Final Fantasy X is a popular and well-received entry in the series, but for some its remake is a source of frustration considering it’s a more recent release when compared to Final Fantasy VII, so why is it getting an HD release first?  Well, as most can probably deduce, it comes down to money.  Being a PS2 game, Final Fantasy X can be upscaled to HD and touched up here and there with minimal effort, and more importantly, minimal cost.  The game will still look old, but still mostly pleasing to the eye.  Playstation 2 games as a whole have aged pretty well.  Early generation Playstation One games on the other hand, have not.  An HD version of FFVII would likely not improve the look of the title any, and may even harm it.  Even when it was released, FFVII was not considered a tour de force when it came to graphics.  Certain aspects of the game were praised, such as the FMV summons and cut scenes, but the general look of the game was mostly just passable with its blocky characters and pre-rendered backgrounds.  For a re-make, FFVII would require a new game engine and would need to be recreated from the ground up.  Square-Enix could use an existing engine and could probably farm a lot of the textures and models needed from other games, but the cost would be considerable making it more like a brand new game in terms of production, as opposed to a remake.

As a result, none of the Playstation-era Final Fantasy games have received a make-over since release.  Final Fantasy VIII isn’t looked on fondly, so that fact makes it unlikely for re-release, but Final Fantasy IX was mostly well-received by fans and critics and that too has not been re-done.  As a later era title, an HD remake would suit the game far more than one would for Final Fantasy VII.  If anything, it’s surprising none of these titles were ported to the PSP, but availability on the Playstation Network has made it so that they can be purchased and downloaded to Sony’s portables, as well as the PS3, and enjoyed as they were originally released.

If Square-Enix is growing tired of this topic, it only has itself to blame after inviting this kind of attention with a PS3 tech demo of FFVII.

If Square-Enix is growing tired of this topic, it only has itself to blame after inviting this kind of attention with a PS3 tech demo of FFVII.

The lack of a physical re-release for Final Fantasy VII likely irritates fans almost as much as the lack of a re-make, and that’s mostly due to the fact that so many other titles have been released in its place.  The NES era games have all been re-released, and in some cases, remade all together.  The SNES games have also all been re-released or remade on other platforms, most notably Final Fantasy IV which has been re-released multiple times and also completely redone for the PSP.  A sequel was also commissioned and released in installments before being released as a physical game.  If supporters for a FFVII re-make are looking for companions in misery, they at least can turn to the group looking for a Final Fantasy VI re-make.  Final Fantasy VI and VII are often considered the best in the series.  I blogged years back on the subject and selected VII as my favorite, but in truth my opinion changes with the wind.  FFVI has had the benefit of re-release on the Gameboy Advance and Playstation, but outside of those two it really hasn’t been touched much.  Working against both games is their reputation as all-time greats, which probably does intimidate, to some degree, Square-Enix as they know any attempt at a reimagining for both games will be held to considerably high standards.  Square-Enix likely could have remade VI instead of IV with the Final Fantasy III engine crafted for the DS, but maybe felt like fans would be less willing to accept a half-way attempt at a remake of such a beloved game.

Whichever game you would prefer to see remade, it’s undeniable that supporters for a Final Fantasy VII remake have been teased far more than those holding out hope for a VI remake.  Square-Enix, and the gaming press, have kept the topic alive over the years and I sense that fans are starting to tire of it.  Most seem to have the attitude of “just announce a final decision already or don’t talk about it at all.”  I suppose I share that sentiment, as I don’t care to read about Square-Enix or one of its producers musing on the subject and offering no substance.  Part of the reason why the subject seems to be coming up more and more is due to the fact that a lot of gamers aren’t satisfied with the current Final Fantasy XIII themed games.  Ultimately, the question is simply should Square-Enix take the time (and money) to re-make Final Fantasy VII?

There may never be a remake, by the film sequel Advent Children did offer fans a glimpse of what their favorite characters might look like in a modern game.

There may never be a remake, by the film sequel Advent Children did offer fans a glimpse of what their favorite characters might look like in a modern game.

In short, the answer is “Yes.”  Square-Enix could approach a remake in two ways: build it form the ground up, or just attempt a better looking game from the original.  The ground-up approach wouldn’t necessarily mean a brand new engine.  Square-Enix could opt to use the same engine currently in use for Final Fantasy XV which is being developed for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One.  They’re also developing numerous other “next-gen” games they could utilize.  Going in the other, less-ambitious, direction, Square-Enix could opt for a remake more on par with the Final Fantasy IV ones, which aimed to improve the look of the original but not up to current home console standards.  That engine was crafted for the old portables and obviously would not be suitable for a FFVII remake now, but Square-Enix could use the FFXIII engine, or if aiming to be even less ambitious, a PS2 era engine.  Upgrading FFVII to resemble a game like FFXII would be a huge improvement over the original and something fans may even accept if released for a modest price.

Considering how big the game is and how beloved by its fan-base it’s become, Square-Enix probably feels like a Final Fantasy VII remake can’t be done on a conservative scale.  This is likely the biggest obstacle standing in its way.  That means if Square-Enix decided to green-light the project today, it would have to do so as a PS4/Xbox One game for retail release at the standard price of $60.  In addition to re-crafting the look of the game, Square-Enix would also be faced with the decision of whether or not to dub the game.  When FFVII was originally released, the characters didn’t speak and would not do so until FFX.  A sequel movie for FFVII was made a few years back, so Square-Enix has already given a voice to the main characters, but it’s still a large undertaking to dub an old game for multiple audiences.  Such an undertaking means Square-Enix is basically faced with the choice of remaking FFVII or making a new game such as a potential FFXVI.  Square-Enix’s strategy with the previous generation of consoles was to make a new game, FFXIII, and then reuse the resources to create multiple sequels.  Square-Enix never used to make direct sequels to its Final Fantasy games but I suspect it started to because of the rising cost of game development.  A sequel to FFXIII was a lot cheaper to make than a brand new game, primarily because development time was shortened with gameplay mechanics that could just be carried over as well as textures and character models.  I would propose this time around, Square-Enix opt to not make a direct sequel to FFXV and instead remake VII.  XV already started off as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, a would-be spin-off/sequel for the original FFXIII that never made it out of development Hell.  It’s likely not going to happen, but if FFVII is ever to be remade then this seems like the now or never point.

Even if a remake never happens, at least we'll always have the original to fall back on.

Even if a remake never happens, at least we’ll always have the original to fall back on.

At the end of the day, I find myself asking do we even need a remake for Final Fantasy VII?  It’s only being discussed as much and as often as it is because it was such a well-received game in the first place.  If it’s already a classic, does it need a new version?  After all, nobody is asking for remakes to Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz even though technology has advanced monumentally since those films came out.  I would argue it is different with video games as opposed to film.  Classic films are restored and re-released on new formats all the time, Final Fantasy VII hasn’t even received that much attention.  The game is somewhat crude looking by today’s standards, more so than even the game that preceded it.  The sprites of Final Fantasy VI have aged much better than the polygons of Final Fantasy VII, and a fresh take on the game could make the world even more expansive than before (just go ahead and look at the world map of FFVII, there isn’t much going on that makes it feel “alive”).  Fans want a remake because they honestly believe the game can be improved, which isn’t something you hear when discussing remakes for famous films.  It feels like it’s worth doing because it is, and there’s little question a remake will sell extremely well for Square-Enix, and that’s the biggest reason why fans are still holding out hope.


Greatest Games: Xenogears

Xenogears (1998)

Xenogears (1998)

For me, all of my entries in my “Greatest Games” subcategory have been building towards this one.  My intention with the series was to present some of the games I felt were among the best I had ever played while shying away from the obvious choices.  After all, plenty has been said about A Link to the Past or Super Metroid.  While I made entries about Chrono Cross and Twisted Metal Black I was constantly looking ahead to that one game I preferred above all others.

Xenogears arrived during the RPG boom of the late 1990’s.  Developed by Squaresoft under direction from Tetsuya Takahashi, the game was originally supposed to be Final Fantasy VII but it became too dark and too sci-fi in nature to continue as such.  Takahashi was allowed to continue with the project as opposed to seeing it outright canceled but at a much reduced budget (more on that later).  Many Final Fantasy collaborators contributed to the project including executive producer Hironobu Sakaguchi.  When the game was complete, most of the staff would go on to develop Chrono Cross before eventually departing Square with Takahashi to form Monolith Software.

The game begins with our hero Fei in a rather innocent setting.

The game begins with our hero Fei in a rather innocent setting.

Takahashi was nothing if ambitious when creating Xenogears.  It was conceived as being just a part of a much larger narrative and is in fact titled as Episode V in the game’s credits.  The narrative focus of the game is epic in scope with a lot of talking points and several cut scenes, some of which are done with CG and others in full animation.  It’s a long game, one that will take most players around fifty hours to complete on the first play-through.  It’s story focuses on the young Fei Fong Wong, a typical RPG lead in that he has no family and knows very little about his past.  The plot will see Fei discover his true purpose, which is of course a significant one, as he journeys across the globe with a cast of characters out to save the world.  The story is nothing new in setup, but how Xenogears approaches it helps to differentiate it from the flock.  There are many religious undertones to the game’s narrative, some of which nearly scared Square out of an international release.  The game takes itself very seriously and though there are moments where comedy is utilized they’re not frequent.  The game has been criticized for being too pretentious, but it is a fairly enjoyable experience even if it can be hard to understand.

Part of the reason many consider Xenogears to be so pretentious is due to the fact that it tries to be too many things.  There are elements and themes taken from classic philosophy as well as modern sci-fi conventions found in the likes of Blade Runner.  The plot of the game seems to bounce around in focus with lots of twists and turns.  It’s fairly common for games in this genre to start off with one goal and finish with something completely unrelated, but Xenogears takes it to a new level.  The game does a good job of remaining interesting the whole way through but perhaps it would have benefited from a tighter structure.

Giant robots called gears play an important role in Xenogears.

Giant robots called gears play an important role in Xenogears.

The gameplay for Xenogears incorporates a lot of genre staples but also introduces some new concepts.  Players travel from town to town either on foot or via transportation and can talk and engage with non-player characters along the way which is often necessary to advance the plot.  Battles are initiated via random encounters on the overworld map or in dungeons.  Once a battle is commenced, the player takes control of a party of up to three individuals chosen beforehand or dictated by the game.  From there it’s a variation of the Final Fantasy Active Time Battle system where a speed score dictates the order and frequency of each character’s attacks.  When it’s the player’s turn, the options are also fairly straight-forward and include attack, defend, run, item, or magic.  The magic command is usually called ether or spirit but functions in the same way as a typical magic attack in most RPGs would.  When the player selects a standard attack is where things change.

In Xenogears, each character has a certain amount of attack points that can be used per turn.  At the beginning of the game there are six per character, but it increases over time.  Each face button on the Playstation controller corresponds with an attack command and has a point value:  triangle is one, square is two, X is three, and circle cancels or ends the attack.  A player can combine the buttons in any way up to the maximum available or use as few as one.  Certain attack combinations will trigger deathblow animations where the character will execute a more powerful move.  Performing the necessary sequence over and over is the only way to learn them but the game keeps track for you in the menu so you don’t have to guess.  The buttons do not have to be entered with any sort of speed so it’s not like a rhythm game or a fighter.  If the player chooses to use fewer than the available attack point total then the remainder goes into a bank for the rest of the confrontation.  As the player accumulates additional attack points, combos become available.  Combos basically allow the player to chain deathblow attacks in one turn allowing for a massive amount of damage to be unleashed.  As a result, most encounters (particularly boss encounters) end up being a balancing act where the player has to decide if it’s better to go all out from the start or build a character (or characters) up to unleash a giant combo.

Cut scenes like this nearly kept the game from getting a release outside of Japan.

Cut scenes like this nearly kept the game from getting a release outside of Japan.

That’s just one half of combat as Xenogears’ main feature is that of gear combat.  Gears are giant robots piloted by the game’s protagonists and allow the player to take on much larger foes.  Each character has access or will gain access to a gear during the course of play.  The gears basically mirror the character they’re paired with so the ones effective at dealing out the most damage on foot will be the same in their gear.  Even certain magic attacks are unusable by the gears while some are only usable on foot.  One of the more unique characters in the game, Billy utilizes guns and so his gear does as well.  On foot, each attack button corresponds to a different gun and the same is true in his gear, though it uses different ammunition.  Gear battle is very similar to character battle but has some notable differences.  For one, the player can only use two combinations of attack buttons but instead of having attack points each gear has a supply of fuel.  Each attack consumes fuel with triangle attacks consuming the least and X attacks consuming the most.  As a gear attacks, its attack level goes up.  At level one, triangle deathblows can be used.  At level 2, square deathblows become available, and so on.  There are four levels a gear can reach:  1, 2, 3, and Infinity.  Infinity is the most powerful and only becomes available late in the game.  It’s also not attainable simply by performing four non deathblow attacks in succession.  Instead, there is just a chance a gear can reach infinity when in level 3 and certain gears have a better chance of doing so than others.  Infinity opens up the best deathblows and lasts for three turns so when a gear is able to reach it it usually swings the tide of battle.

The character Elly is a central figure of the Xenogears plot.

The character Elly is a central figure of the Xenogears plot.

Gears also present some challenges not felt when fighting with the human characters.  I mentioned the fuel already which can run out.  If a gear runs out of fuel then it can’t attack, which presents a problem.  Each gear can use a turn to charge which replenish fuel but not a significant amount (unless the player equips a gear with charge-boosting items) and is not something one wants to rely on.  Gears also cannot replenish their hit points easily in battle.  Gears can be equipped with restorative items but they consume a lot of fuel.  Often times, this will cause the player to wait as long as possible to use such an item but then they find themselves in a situation where the gear is now low on fuel exchanging one problem for another.  Basically, the game forces the player to think a little differently when engaged in gear combat and that helps keep the game fresh.  The game is pretty much divided into equal parts gear combat and non-gear combat which does help to keep things interesting.

Outside of combat, character customization is pretty standard.  Each character can be equipped with stat-boosting items and armor with the best items becoming available towards the game’s conclusion.  Only some characters utilize weapons in combat just as only some have magic attacks.  Most will fit into the attack role or the support role with a few select characters performing adequately in both roles.  The game does do a good job of making the characters feel different.  I mentioned Billy earlier as one such character due to his use of firearms.  Another, Maria, always attacks with her gear even while on foot and another character has no gear at all, she can just grow to tremendous heights instead.  As character participate in battle they earn experience points and level up, in turn becoming stronger.  Gears do not receive any benefits from their pilot leveling up.  Instead, they can be upgraded through-out the game with better equipment including engines and frames which increase the gear’s stats as well as its hit points.

A lot of the combat takes place in gears.

A lot of the combat takes place in gears.

There are other things to keep players interested in the game.  Outside of battle players can search the world for players of the game Speed.  Speed is a real-world card game (when I was a kid we called it Spit) where the determining factor of who wins is who plays the fastest.  Defeating these players will often net a useful item and certain secret items can only be obtained via this mini game.  Another mini game is a gladiator type of coliseum where the battles take place in real-time.  The player can select from basically every gear in the game and compete in a fast-paced one on one battle.  It kind of reminds me of the Dragon Ball Z fighting games in that the characters zip around pretty fast and alternate between melee attacks and long-range energy projectiles.  At any rate, both mini games offer decent distractions and are entertaining in their own right.

Visually the game is a fairly solid performer given its era.  The designers opted to use sprites for the characters instead of polygons and while they animate nicely they are quite pixellated.  Backgrounds tend to be on the sparse side and the texture mapping is average.  Backgrounds are a hybrid of 2D and 3D and most areas can be rotated via the shoulder buttons on the controller.  It’s a bit odd watching the game try to rotate around a 2-dimensional character but it does help for timing jumps (something else that helps differentiate the title from a typical RPG, albeit in a minor way).  When the game transitions to gear battle everything becomes rendered in 3D.  The gears are fairly solid-looking and each has its own visual personality.  Attack animations are pretty understated when compared with other games from the genre.  There’s very little in the way of “wow” moments but nothing is really off-putting either.  If anything, the sprite-based approach helps in the long run as many games that opted to use polygons look woefully dated by today’s standards.  The score is quite good and on-par with Final Fantasy’s best, though some of the sound effects are a bit lackluster.  The FMV and anime sequences are not numerous but that helps give them added impact when they do show up.

Xenogears tends to take itself quite seriously.

Xenogears tends to take itself quite seriously.

There is one other thing I have yet to mention about this game that many view as a glaring negative. I mentioned how the project was an ambitious one but I have yet to mention that it was so ambitious it went over budget.  If a Final Fantasy game runs over budget at Square it’s probably not that big of a deal but when an unestablished title does it presents a problem.  Since there was no money left a large section of the game had to be cut, but since the title is so narrative heavy, it could not just be annexed from the game.  Instead, when the player reaches the point in the game where the cuts took place (early in disc 2) they’re treated to a mostly black screen with the exception of Fei seated in a chair.  Here a seemingly endless amount of text is displayed as Fei takes on the role of narrator and explains to the gamer what took place next.  Other characters speak as well, but the presentation remains the same with the exception of a couple of gameplay rendered shots.  The scenarios being described were supposed to be playable but unfortunately are not.  And this section goes on for a good 45 minutes or so.  I remember the first time I reached this point of the game (I’ve played through it multiple times) it was really late at night and I just wanted to go to sleep but had to keep going and going to get through it.  The game does give you the option to save a couple of times so at least there’s that.

Xenogears may not be visually impressive by today's standards, but it still has its moments.

Xenogears may not be visually impressive by today’s standards, but it still has its moments.

As a result, the game feels like it never got what it deserves, which is what every game deserves:  to be completed.  Xenogears sold modestly well but with the creators behind it all leaving to form Monolith it basically ended the possibility of there ever being a true sequel.  Xenosaga was initially conceived as being a part of the Xenogears lineage, but either legal decisions forced that to change or an artistic change was made.  Xenogears presents a pretty open and shut story with little room for a natural sequel, but I would love to see Square return to it as a remake.  The game could be left as is or it could be cleaned up completely with an all new engine.  Some pacing issues could be addressed, but most importantly, the portions of the game cut could finally be restored either thru a new gameplay section or via fully animated cut scenes.  Since Takahashi no longer works for Square, it would have to be done without him but considering the ground work has been laid already it wouldn’t be that difficult.  Xenogears deserves to be experienced the way it was initially conceived and I would personally prefer to see it remade over Final Fantasy VII, a remake many people have been hoping for.  Maybe it will happen one day (though probably not), but even if it never does Xenogears remains my favorite game of all-time.  I know it’s not the greatest game ever made, but it doesn’t have to be in order to win me over.

For those who have never played it, second-hand copies of Xenogears can still be found fairly regularly on auction sites like eBay.  Square-Enix also released the game onto the Playstation Store so Playstation 3 owners can experience the game that way.


Greatest Games: Chrono Cross

Chrono Cross (1999)

I have been intentionally avoiding the topic of video games of late.  I felt like this blog was getting too video game oriented when it’s meant to capture more.  I think the break has been long enough and so I return to my Greatest Games feature with the latest addition, Squaresoft’s Playstation masterpiece:  Chrono Cross.

Chrono Cross was burdened by hype from the get-go.  One of the most fondly remembered games from the 16 bit era is Square’s Chrono Trigger, the time-traveling RPG that won over many gamers in 1995.  It came late in the Super Nintendo lifecycle and at a time when the RPG was starting to get a bit stale.  It changed things up though thru it’s then innovative battle system and time traveling dynamic which made the game feel extremely fresh.  Those who played it loved it, and those who found out about it much later felt like they really missed out driving the after-market prices of SNES game carts to unexpected heights.  Squaresoft would wisely capitalize on this by re-releasing Chrono Trigger for the Playstation with Final Fantasy IV as part of the Final Fantasy Chronicles compilation.  They would also develop and release a sequel in 1999 called Chrono Cross.

By the time Chrono Cross arrived the fans who had missed out on Chrono Trigger had caught on and expectations were high.  The game was well met by critics when first released, becoming one of only seven titles reviewed by Gamespot to receive a perfect score.  Other outlets were eager to praise the title and it was one of the best reviewed games of 1999 and is still the 8th best reviewed title for the Playstation behind games such as Metal Gear Solid and Gran Turismo 2 and ahead of genre-mate Final Fantasy VII.  Even with all of that praise though, it still feels like Chrono Cross gets overshadowed by the game it followed.  Chrono Trigger has been re-released numerous times for both home consoles and portables.  Chrono Cross, on the other hand, has never been re-released in the US and only recently was made available on the Playstation Network in Japan.  The game sold pretty well, but it didn’t move a real noteworthy amount of units (though most RPG’s don’t).  It feels like the game is still fighting for recognition, even when few are there to put it down.

Serge, the game’s primary protagonist.

Chrono Cross is my preferred game of the Chrono series.  That’s not a knock against Chrono Trigger, a truly wonderful and memorable game, but Cross is just a tiny bit better.  The scope of the game is enormous.  There are over 45 characters for the player to recruit and use and a select few have hidden special moves that can be used in conjunction with other characters.  The game encourages repeat playings as it’s impossible to recruit all of the game’s characters in one play-through.  The game’s plot does not take the player across millions of years but it does include parallel worlds.  In an interesting twist, the game’s main character is alive in one world but died as a small child in the other.  In sort of typical Japanese RPG plot-lines, nothing is what it seems and things do get a bit convoluted by the game’s end but it’s an engrossing and worthwhile story to experience.

The gameplay is similar to Chrono Trigger and other Japanese RPG’s, but it is different in several key areas.  Chrono Cross felt remarkably progressive when it first came out as the game did away with genre staples such as experience points and random encounters.  Instead of experience points, characters get progressively better after performing actions in battle up to a certain point.  There’s a cap placed on the player that can only be extended by defeating a boss character and gaining a “star.”  There’s also no magic points, or mana, and these stars serve as a fuel of sorts to summon creatures to aid in battle.  Magic and special abilities are all labeled as elements, and they are one-time use in battle.  If you want your character to cast Aqua Ball twice you simply equip the spell twice.  Each character has an element grid that grows with the character.  Characters have their own unique abilities at certain levels and are free to equip anything else.

A look at the game’s battle scenario. Not bad for a game that’s over 10 years old!

To go along with this element system is a color coded element field.  The field exists on every battle and is comprised of three parts.  There are six element colors that can affect the field and using any of the six adds it to the field and bumps one off.  For example, if three consecutive red elements are used between the player and enemy, then the whole field is red.  Each character has an innate elemental color associated with him or her which makes them more proficient with that color and weak to its opposite.  When the field is in that character’s favor, that character gets a boost in stats and all elements of that color are more potent.

Standard attacks use attack points.  At the onset of a turn, a character has seven stamina points to use.  Using any kind of element uses up seven while physical attacks are tiered and consume 1, 2, or 3 points.  The player can use all seven up on physical attacks or elements.  Elements can be used at any time, but if the player only has two stamina points remaining then he’ll end that turn with negative 5 stamina points which will likely impact the character’s next turn.  It becomes a management tool and sometimes the player will be tempted to go all out and exhaust his or her characters in an effort to deal a killing blow.  And since the element field is affected by everyone who uses elements it affects how the player uses all of the characters in the party (three total).

The battle system encourages tactical thinking, more so than most Final Fantasy games.  And because the roster of available characters is so large it gives the player lots of freedom to swap characters in and out of the main party.  Usually who’s in it will be determined by the environment as it’s good to have an opposite aligned character to deal out major damage, though going too heavy on the opposite element means your characters are more susceptible to the enemies as well.  These kinds of trade-offs are not foreign to gamers, but it works to great effect in Chrono Cross and keeps even the more mundane enemy encounters amusing.

If you’re a fan of the genre and never played this one then you’re really missing out.

As I mentioned earlier, the plot can get a bit murky but overall it’s pretty fun and will keep most gamers entertained.  The game pulls the old switcheroo midway through by having the main character change rather drastically which gives the game a new feel.  The art direction and visuals were quite stunning in 1999 and hold up surprisingly well today.  A lot of games from the Playstation era cannot say the same.  There’s many lush environments, especially early in the game, and there’s liberal use of FMV for the more spectacular moments.  The audio is also fantastic.  Sure the characters don’t talk and it’s a pretty text-heavy title, but the soundtrack is exceptional and one of the best of all time.  Above all, it’s just a fun game.  This is the Japanese RPG perfected and the genre’s popularity maybe well behind us at this point but it’s still fun to go back and relive the classics.  New games are great and all, but there’s nothing like firing up an old classic and if you’re going to play an older RPG, Chrono Cross is the one to reach for.


Greatest Games: Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996)

In the early to mid 90’s Nintendo was still king.  Sega had carved out a very nice, and in some parts of the world larger, fan-base but Nintendo was still the first word that came mind when video games were brought up.  By the end of the 90’s Sony would establish itself as the new leader of the pack, but that didn’t really weaken the Nintendo brand too much.  At the same time, Squaresoft was killing it with the Final Fantasy franchise and beyond.  When it was announced that Nintendo and Square were working together on a role-playing game expectations could not have been set higher.

That collaboration would give birth to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, one of the Super Nintendo’s final acts of brilliance.  I, to this day, still feel like I missed out a bit on how great the SNES was.  I had one, like just about everybody.  When I first heard that a Super Nintendo was coming to market I wanted it without ever having seen it.  I didn’t have a subscription to a game magazine or anything, and not many of my friends did either.  I think the first time I saw what the SNES even looked like was at a cousin’s house.  I begged for one but would have to wait a little while until one Christmas where I had my Ralphie moment to find it hidden behind a kitchen chair.  It was awesome, but by next Christmas I wanted a Genesis because it had Mortal Kombat with blood.  Pixelated red stuff was really important to a 9 year old.  I received a Genesis the very next Christmas, one year after I got my SNES.  From there I never received another SNES game.  I think my mother and grandmother (the two most likely to buy me Christmas and birthday presents) assumed the Genesis was superior or something and would just buy me Genesis games.  As a result, most of my SNES play was through rentals or much later on through ports on the Playstation or other means.

Mario was able to jump and avoid enemies on the "world map" areas. Contact with an enemy would take the player into battle mode.

Super Mario RPG was a game I experienced in a limited fashion when it was first released.  On the surface, it was kind of an absurd title.  Mario, the plumber, in an epic Final Fantasy style adventure?  It had an interesting visual style though, a pseudo 3D engine that kind of looked like claymation, and an isometric 3 quarters perspective.  I rented it with a friend, multiple times I think, though we understandably could never beat it in one night.  I had another friend who owned it and showed me the ending since he beat it.  I never thought to borrow it and play through it myself, probably because by then I had a Playstation and was at that age where it didn’t make sense to go backwards from the more powerful console to the lesser.  When emulation started to rise in popularity on the internet I downloaded it and played through it.  And then once the Wii and its Virtual Console came along I downloaded it again and played through it from start to finish, this time seeing everything the game had to offer.

The antagonist for Super Mario RPG; Smithy!

Super Mario RPG is one of those games that’s just plain fun to play.  It would be easy to credit that to the Mario charm but I give most of the credit to Square.  Square could have taken the easy way out and just palette swapped Final Fantasy VI with Nintendo characters and called it a day.  Instead, they took the essence of what made a Mario game a Mario game and incorporated that into an RPG formula.  Mario is the premier platform hero, and Square wisely identified that and incorporated something that’s fundamental in most games into a genre where it’s completely foreign:  the jump button.  Mario could jump, which added a new amount of depth to the world.  Mario traverses a world not completely unlike his usual Nintendo adventures.  As he encounters enemies he can jump on them which brings the game into battle with Mario scoring an early hit.  He also has platforms to traverse and jump across.  These challenges are fairly limited and there’s nothing as challenging as the hardest Super Mario Bros. levels were accustomed to, but it does add to the experience and help make it decidedly “Mario.”

The battle system also received an overhaul to best suit the plumber and his pals.  It’s still turn-based like the majority of RPGs at that time, but it incorporates more button presses.  These commands take the form of either button mashing or timing based.  Hit the attack button at the proper time for just about every attack and the character will score an additional hit up to a certain point.  It’s possible to ignore these extra commands if one is so inclined, but it’s far more rewarding to make use of them.  The more powerful attacks were suitably more difficult to pull off but also more rewarding.  This also worked on defense as well, as characters could avoid taking full damage on some attacks with a well-timed button press.  The game does a good job of changing things up at the right time as well so that just when you’re getting comfortable dodging the para-kooopa’s attack or timing Mario’s mallet strikes just right, a new enemy comes along or a new weapon.

The weapons and skills also have a lot of Mario charm incorporated into them.  Mario has his fire power to make use of and his jump attack.  He can also wield a mallet at times like he did way back in his debut in Donkey Kong.  My favorite weapon is probably Bowser’s chain chomp which he wields like a bolas by spinning it over his head and then tossing it.  Oh yeah, this game also pairs up Mario and Bowser!  Such a pairing would repeat itself, but this is the first time it happened in a game and it was pretty cool.  Not only was it fun to pair Mario and Bowser, but it’s also nice to give Mario a different antagonist.  And since the Princess joins the party as well, this makes Super Mario RPG the rare Mario game where the plumber isn’t out to rescue the Princess from Bowser.

The "star" of Super Mario RPG? Geno certainly was a hit with fans, and many would like to see a return engagement with Mario.

Square would jointly create additional characters with Nintendo to flesh out Mario’s party.  In battle, only 3 characters can be used at once but up to 5 were selectable by the game’s end.  In addition to the 3 mentioned before, Mario was also teamed up with a cloud kid named Mallow (who thinks he’s a frog) and the toy come to life Geno.  Geno has since become a fan-favorite and often comes up whenever a new Smash Bros. game is mentioned as a potential player character.  Despite the fan reaction to him, he’s yet to make another appearance in any Nintendo game.  Square actually holds the copyright on Geno (or at least holds it jointly with Nintendo) which is why he is unlikely to ever surface again as a playable character (he does have an item cameo in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga).  The party Mario ends up forming contains the usual assortment of offensive-minded characters, healers, and so on.  It’s nothing too deep, but the variety is solid enough.

If there’s room for improvement it’s with the story-line and difficulty of the game.  It’s standard fare for an RPG to have a big, dramatic plot, which is something Mario has never been known for.  The story here is rather simplistic and not a driving force of the game.  Square wisely interjects humor wherever it can giving this title a different feel from most of the genre.  And considering Nintendo didn’t give Square much to work with in terms of plot depth based on older Super Mario Bros. games, they did a pretty admirable job.  And while the gameplay is complex enough to separate the title from introductory RPGs such as Mystic Quest, it still feels like Square made it as accessible as possible for Nintendo’s audience.  There’s some challenge to the game but nothing crazy.  There’s no point in the game which requires the player to go out and level grind to get through a certain dungeon or any white knuckle boss encounters.  Even the optional, hidden boss Culex (a Final Fantasy themed boss) isn’t very difficult to best.

The game is by no means perfect, but it offered a fun and refreshing take on the RPG genre when it was first released.  The charm of the title was infectious, and it’s approach to battle would show up in both future Nintendo titles and future Squaresoft games.  Because the relationship between the two companies soured shortly after the release of Super Mario RPG, a true sequel has never been created.  Instead fans have received several spiritual sequels in the form of the Paper Mario series and the handheld Mario & Luigi games.  Both franchises borrow heavily from Super Mario RPG, but neither is a copy and paste affair.  For the most part, the humor has been carried over and made an essential part of the game’s story-telling.  Bowser is also rarely the ultimate foe and is sometimes a playable character as well.  Timing based attacks are the norm for the battles and for the most part the games have been a lot of fun.  Turning Mario into an RPG star seemed like a pretty crazy idea in 1996, but it worked out better than probably anyone could have hoped for.  The current games have been fun, but I still think the original Super Mario RPG is the best.