Category Archives: Greatest Games

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: Devil May Cry

Devil May Cry (2001)

Capcom has gone thru many identities throughout its existence.  Early on Capcom made its mark with the blue bomber, Mega Man, and his blend of run and gun platforming.  Mega Man had six games released on the original Nintendo, plus many more on the Gameboy, Super Nintendo, and so on with entries in both the main series and several spin-offs.  In the 90’s Capcom would establish itself as the leader in the fighting genre.  Championed by Street Fighter, Capcom’s games were the measuring stick for all 2D fighters.  The genre exploded, and like all things popular, it eventually became over-saturated.  Capcom needed a new identity as video games headed into the third dimension.  Mega Man was a 2D experience through and through, and no one knew if Street Fighter could make the jump, so it fell onto Capcom to create a new money-making franchise.  Enter Resident Evil and its focus on what would become survival horror.  Alone in the Dark was the first game to be called survival horror, but Resident Evil defined it.  It was hugely popular and it too would spawn many imitators, but Capcom had a new hit and in a new genre to boot.

A company that has always been linked to Capcom for me is Konami.  The two had a strong presence on the original NES with Konami’s most popular title probably being Contra.  Similar to Mega Man, it too was a run and gun platformer but with a much different focus.  Konami’s other big franchise was the Castlevania series, a side-scrolling action/adventure title that popularised the non-linear format of gameplay.  When systems like the Playstation and Nintendo 64 started showing up with their fancy new 3D graphics, both Konami and Capcom found themselves in the same boat when trying to bring their classics to the new hardware.  Both had some stumbles, but Konami experienced a most spectacular failure when it came to Castlevania.  Konami arguably released the best Castlevania it had ever produced and did so on the Playstation with Castlevania:  Symphony of the Night.  Even though it was on the Playstation, Konami kept the game rooted in the 2D perspective.  It garnered quite a bit of positive press, but it was mostly ignored at retail and Konami blamed that fact on the presentation.  Feeling pressured to bring Castlevania to 3D, Konami released Castlevania 64 in 1999 and it was not met well.  The press at the time seemed to think it was okay, but time has not been kind and the Castlevania diehards were not impressed.  It’s sequel later that year was not met well by critics or fans and many wondered if Castlevania could exist in 3D.

Devil May Cry went with a gothic approach for its style, which helped separate it from Onimusha and Resident Evil, but not Castlevania.

Leave it to Konami’s rival, Capcom, to get it right.  No, Capcom did not develop a Castlevania title for Konami but it might as well have done just that when it released Devil May Cry in 2001.  Devil May Cry (DMC) is one of Capcom’s greatest mistakes and best games they ever released.  It’s a mistake in that originally the game was supposed to be Resident Evil 4, but the development team would eventually realize they had something different on their hands.

When Devil May Cry came out, Resident Evil was still a bankable product.  It had also spawned a pseudo spin-off franchise in the form of Onimusha.  Onimusha had nothing to do with Resident Evil from a narrative perspective, but it was basically survival horror in feudal Japan.  It focused more on combat and was pretty successful in its own right.  Devil May Cry took that formula, and added something very familiar to gamers:  a jump button.

It seems like such a simple device, but jumping completely changed the Resident Evil/Onimusha formula.  DMC’s protagonist, Dante, could jump from ledge to ledge like Mega Man and attack from the air, leap over enemies, and soar to new heights Jill and Chris could never hope to reach.  Dante was also super-powered being a half-demon so it wasn’t like he was jumping two or three feet, he was leaping twelve or fifteen!  He could drop from any height without getting hurt, and all in all pretty much controlled like one would imagine Castlevania’s Alucard would.

Dante's demon blood lets him turn into a demonic creature giving him enhanced powers and special abilities.

DMC is an action heavy experience, and even though Dante is a half-demon, he still needs some weapons to get thru the hordes of vile machinations and weird creatures that stand in his way.  At the onset Dante is armed with a sword and a pair of revolvers, Ebony and Ivory.  The revolvers have unlimited ammo and can be fired in rapid fashion, but do little damage.  They’re used more as a means of linking damage from one enemy to the next until Dante gets close enough to hack ’em up with his blade.  Gamers can just mash the attack button and get by some of the early enemies, but more precise timing and maneuvers are needed to progress further.  Dante has a couple of moves including a rapid stabbing technique and slower hack and slash.  Arguably, the move he is known best for is the air juggle where the player upper cuts an enemy into the air with the sword and then fills them full of bullets as they hang suspended in the air.  Other weapons change things up some, including a lightning blade and a shotgun.  There’s also the ogre gauntlets that let Dante roll with just his fists.

Both the lightning blade and gauntlets can be powered up using soul orbs that are mined from fallen enemies.  The power-ups unlocked all make Dante’s devil form more powerful.  As a half-demon, Dante is able to activate his devil trigger and morph into a demonic form for a short period of time.  In said form, Dante moves faster and does more damage.  He also has special moves that let him fly and rain lightning down on his enemies or hurl massive fireballs.  The mode is activated by filling an onscreen meter, flashy kills and general good play cause the meter to fill faster.  Activating the devil trigger can quickly turn the tide of battle and is one move the player will often keep in reserve until the time is right.

As I said earlier, the game is really action heavy and is not afraid to pit the player against hordes of enemies.  DMC really popularized the recent trend in action games like God of War, Ninja Gaiden and even Arkham Asylum to have the hero fight off a crowd of foes.  The standard difficulty setting is a suitable challenge for most gamers, but the harder difficulty settings will test any gamer’s skill with a controller.  And even though the focus of the game is on action, the game does pause for some exploration elements and even  some platforming scenarios.  The game arguably shines brightest during one of its boss encounters which often present a good test for Dante.

Visually, the game was a stunner when it was released in 2001 and has aged pretty well.  The gothic aesthetic the developers went for suits the game’s mood and the boss characters are large and imaginative (though not as massive as future installments would get).  The story is just filler to give the game purpose, and that’s fine.

The new Dante featured in DmC. Fans have unkindly dubbed this "Emo Dante."

Devil May Cry was so obviously perfect an approach for Castlevania that Konami’s next game in the series was practically a clone.  And as I mentioned, lots of other action titles followed suit and tried to replicate what DMC had done.  The franchise was perhaps never more popular than when it debuted as it was considered a really fresh take on the action genre.  A sequel would follow in 2002 and was not met well.  Devil May Cry 3 mostly served as a make-up title, but by the time Devil May Cry 4 was released it felt like other titles had leapfrogged it.  Now Capcom is trying to rebrand the game as DmC and features a redesigned Dante.  Time will tell if this reboot is worthwhile, but for my money the original Devil May Cry is still the finest action title I’ve ever played.  When I first played it as a demo (bundled with the PS2 version of Resident Evil:  Code Veronica) it was like nothing I had played before.  It captivated me instantly and I have no idea how many times I played thru that 3 mission demo.  A gamer playing it for the first time today would not likely have the same experience, and they would be missing out.

Greatest Games: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)

There are several core genres of video games, but few games can actually be summed up as one genre.  A game can be called a role-playing game, but there’s a big difference between Chrono Trigger and Baldur’s Gate.  The same can be said for platform games, as few will confuse Super Mario Bros. with Ratchet and Clank.

The Castlevania series has long struggled with genres.  The original game is often described as a hybrid action-adventure title.  Famous for its great, but punishing, gameplay it’s no surprise it spawned several sequels.  The first of which, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, was a radical departure.  For that title, Konami decided to take the non-linear gameplay fans seemed to enjoy so much about the first game, and expand upon it by introducing many RPG elements.  Simon’s Quest was an ambitious title, but probably one that had more failures than successes.  As a result, Konami would simplify the many sequels and slowly work its way towards something more complex.

With new hardware and many more attempts are crafting quality Castlevania games, it was time for Konami to get bold once more.  The arrival of the 32 bit era brought about realistic opportunities for 3D gameplay design.  Not 3D as we know it today (the optical illusion), but 3D polygons instead of hand-drawn 2D sprites as a visual and gameplay style.  If Konami was attempted to explore this style with Castlevania, it wisely held off and stuck with what worked.  Symphony of the Night was born on the Playstation and unveiled to the world in 1997 in a very quiet manner.  Because it was not 3D, and was up against the massive hype-machine known as Final Fantasy VII, it was overlooked initially.  Review outlets were generally impressed by the title, though some would probably like a do-over as even many of those old reviews look like they were done as after-thoughts.

In Symphony of the Night, players will take control of Alucard; son of Dracula!

No matter, Symphony of the Night would receive its due eventually.  SotN took Simon’s Quest and married it with Nintendo’s Super Metroid.  This has lead some fans to affectionately refer to the title as “Metroidvania,” which should not be mistaken as an insult.  SotN sees the player dropped into a familiar setting; Dracula’s Castle.  Only this castle is different than before.  The player can explore it at will as the game doesn’t merely force the player to go left to right.  There are many ledges and secret rooms to find and explore and roadblocks, especially early in the game, are quite frequent forcing the player to back-track.  This emphasis on exploration made the game more than just an action title and really put the focus on the adventure aspect.

In the starring role this time was a familiar, and yet unfamiliar, face.  Alucard, son of Dracula, is the primary protagonist.  The first scene of the game teases a starring role for Richter Belmont, but Alucard is the one who will receive the majority of the playing time.  Alucard plays very differently from the other protagonists to appear in a Castlevania game before him.  As a half-vampire, he’s far more powerful than any Belmont.  He can dash, leap to impressive heights, and change his form.  He has spells at his disposal, input like fighting game commands, and can be built up to god-like levels.  As he kills enemies, Alucard gains experience and levels up.  When the game first starts off he’s fairly weak and most of the player deaths experienced in the game will come in the first hour or so.  As the player “level grinds” and explores more weapons and abilities will be found.  Alucard does not use the traditional whip, but can use pretty much every other type of weapon one can think of.  Most will include various swords and spears but tough guys can also roll with just their fists if they wish.

And since Alucard is the son of the game’s main antagonist, many storyline possibilities are opened up.  While this game came before story became a major point of emphasis in video games, it manages to weave an interesting tale.  SotN sets out to finally bring all of the previous games together under one massive narrative.  Old questions are answered, and new ones born, and for longtime fans it’s a very satisfying experience.  The only drawback is with the voice acting.  Voice acting was ever growing in popularity at the time, but few did it well.  SotN is no exception in that regard and the original release features some atrocious acting.  It’s not used a lot, thankfully, but is pretty groan-inducing.  Ports of the game have improved upon it, though I can’t say how much since I’ve never bothered to play them (I still have my PSX copy).

Symphony of the Night takes a traditional visual approach for the series and even returns many familiar foes.

Visually, the game is a delight!  Alucard’s sprite has smooth animation and nice effects to go with it.  The game makes liberal use of all of the 2D tricks perfected in the 16 bit era and enhances them.  There are some polygons in the game, but they’re mostly used to dress up the background.  Because of this approach, the game holds up quite well to this day.  Some of those old Playstation and Nintendo 64 games that were much heralded in their day cannot say the same thing.  This is still a pretty game, by any standard.  And since it’s a Castlevania title, the soundtrack must be mentioned.  It contains many of the old tracks made famous by the series, but also has a ton of new compositions that all suit the game’s mood.  The synth-metal approach to many of them is a great deal of fun to listen to and there are numerous elements of techno, classical, and other genres blended in.  This is still my all-time favorite video game soundtrack.

The game controls tighter than any previous Castlevania title.  Perhaps it’s because of Alucard’s inhuman nature, but he is much more nimble than any Belmont before him.  This makes controlling him a more enjoyable experience, but also makes the game much easier.  As I mentioned before, the early part of the game can be a challenge as Alucard is de-powered early on, but as you level up and find new weapons and spells the game becomes increasingly easier.  There are a couple of items that practically break the game because of how over-powered they are.  You can, of course, choose not to use them but it’s hard to resist.  There are many boss battles though, and most are fun affairs and offer some of the game’s best challenges.  There are also multiple endings as this is one of those games where just when you think you’ve finished, more is revealed.  Get to 100% completion and the castle gets literally flipped upside down and the game practically starts over again!  There’s also a code to play the entire game as Richter, and later ports include a third character as well; Maria Renard.

Fans looking for a more traditional experience could take control of Richter Belmont in lieu of Alucard via code in the original release.

When I first set out to cover my favorite games I mentioned I was going to mostly stay away from the consensus classics.  Symphony of the Night is probably one of those classics, but to me it has always felt overlooked which is why I chose to include it.  It was largely ignored by audiences when it was first released but as time went on gamers went back to it.  I was one such gamer who first ignored it.  I don’t even remember there being much coverage for it at the time, but I eventually made the time for it and picked up a used copy.  And even though I grabbed that used copy a couple years later, I was still ahead of a lot of people to even be able to find a used copy for cheap money!  Now that black-label game is considered a collector’s item, and while it doesn’t go for huge money in the secondary market, it’s not likely to be found in a bargain bin.

Symphony of the Night, for me, represents Castlevania at its absolute best.  Some long-time fans think it’s too easy to be the best of the best, and since the main gameplay does not feature a whip of any kind it can turn off some traditionalists.  It’s still the most fun I’ve ever had with a Castlevania title and the one I remember most fondly.  Several of the new handheld games have copied the style of SotN but I’m not sure any have truly improved upon it.  Oh, those games are good, but the crown still belongs to the game almost no one played when it was first released nearly 15 years ago.

Greatest Games: Twisted Metal Black

Twisted Metal Black (2001)

The vehicular combat genre of games has been around for almost as long as video games have.  They either take the form of a more traditional tank battle or a more outlandish game of chicken with machine guns and rocket launchers.  As such, tracing its origins proves quite difficult.  For me, the vehicular combat genre as I know it originated with a surprising title; Super Mario Kart.

Super Mario Kart was primarily a go-kart racing game with characters from Nintendo’s Super Mario series of games.  It was a wacky take on the genre, but it also was more than just a racing game.  Around the time it came out, competitive gaming was becoming more and more popular.  Either at the arcades with fighting games or on the computer with death match modes in first-person shooters.  Nintendo, recognizing this, implemented a battle mode in Super Mario Kart that dropped the racers into an arena with the goal of being the last man standing.  Players used the various power-ups to target their opponents with turtle shells and banana peels in an effort to incapacitate their opponents.  Three strikes and you were out.  This mode proved highly addictive and whenever I got together with friends to play Super Mario Kart we pretty much always played battle mode and hardly ever touched the main game.

Other publishers must have taken note, because it wasn’t long until games started showing up that relied almost entirely on this battle mode concept introduced by Super Mario Kart.  It especially exploded during the Playstation era.  By the time that era came to a close the market was saturated with games of varying quality including licensed games like WWE Crush Hour, which was the breaking point for the genre.  It has been de-emphasized by publishers and developers alike and it remains to be seen if it can ever become a major genre again.

Super Mario Kart may have been the originator, but the title most cite as the launching point for the modern genre of car combat is Twisted Metal.  Twisted Metal was one of Sony’s earliest first-party titles for the Playstation, arriving in stores roughly two months after the system’s launch in North America.  Original launch units of the Playstation included a video demo of the game as part of the pack-in demo disc along with games like Tekken and Warhawk.  Critically, it wasn’t well received for the most part but gamers seemed to enjoy it well enough.  For me, it was the first game I ever bought for my brand new Playstation game console and an early favorite.

The original Twisted Metal, in its original case too. Sony would eventually ditch these cases in favor of standard jewel ones.

Had I seen the initial reviews I may have never purchased it.  My introduction to the Playstation seemed to happen fast and came out of no where.  My grandmother on my mother’s side lived for Christmas when I was younger.  She would get all of those gigantic wish catalogs put out by the major department stores and have me and my sister pick through them to make our Christmas list.  She always wanted to be the one to get us that gift we wanted most.  That year I remember picking through one such catalog with her and pointing out things I wanted.  They must have been all little things like action figures and movies and I remember her almost getting frustrated.  She asked me if there was something big I wanted and I turned the page and saw “Sony Playstation $299.99” on the bottom right-hand corner.  I pointed to that, almost as a joke because to an 11 year old a $300 system seems way too big.  My mom had a similar reaction but then my grandmother started to reason it.  She more or less agreed to get it for me with the caveat that it would be the only thing I’d get.  I knew next to nothing about the Playstation, only that it was new and seemed exotic compared to my Genesis and Super Nintendo and was more than happy to concede other gifts in exchange for a hot new console.  Little did I know, my grandmother had been notified that my nana (dad’s mother) had told my mom she was giving me a television for Christmas which was like declaring war with grandma.  I got caught in the cross-hairs of a grandmother battle and reaped the benefits.

Because I really knew nothing about the Playstation, I had no idea what games to get.  For Christmas that year my parents gave me Doom, a familiar title to me since I had played it on my friend’s PC a few times.  There was no Mario or Sonic though to fall back on, all I had was that demo disc.  Twisted Metal looked pretty cool, so I bought it with some Christmas money.  Not long after I got Street Fighter Alpha, but all I would really play for the next six months (until my birthday) was Twisted Metal.  I would end up beating it with every character, I’d play my friends in death match, and just enjoyed the Hell out of it.  Twisted Metal 2 would arrive the following year and improve upon the original in almost every way.  Then something terrible would happen.

Singletrac, the developer of Twisted Metal, would leave Sony over a contract dispute.  Twisted Metal was owned by Sony though, so they just handed it off to internal studio 989 who was best known for crafting Sony’s licensed sports games.  989 would release the next two Twisted Metal games and both were disasters.  Singletrac put out the acceptable Rogue Trip and other studios were putting out car combat games that now surpassed the Twisted Metal brand.

This was unacceptable.  When Singletrac folded and some of the key members went on to form Incognito, Sony gobbled them up and immediately handed them the Twisted Metal franchise in an effort to bring it back.  And bring it back they did, for that team basically erased everything 989 had done with one game; Twisted Metal Black.

Levels became more expansive in Twisted Metal Black.

Released on the Playstation 2 in the summer of 2001, Twisted Metal Black returned the series to the more gritty atmosphere present in the original game.  The cartoonish antics of the sequel were gone and few righteous characters remained.  All of the drivers of the various cars were now mental patients.  Some were noble, like the driver of the police SUV Outlaw, but even the noble ones were twisted somehow.  The levels throughout the game depicted a bleak and desolate world on the brink of ruin.  Calypso was still the ring-leader and organizer of the Twisted Metal competition, but it was unclear if he still possessed super natural powers in most of the story modes (he did) and he came across as just some sick freak looking to get off on the misfortunes of others.  All of the characters had their own tragic back-story.  Each would narrate it him or herself with an opening video, a mid-point video revealing what led them to a mental institution, and an ending.  Calypso was never given a voice.

The main title menu opened with a still image of exploding cars with the opening notes of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” playing.  It was creepy and the song suited the game’s mood quite well (the full song played over the ending credits making this one of the few games where I always watch the ending credits).  Graphically, the game was exceptional.  Up until that point, few games had really done a good job of showing off what the Playstation 2 could do.  The best we had at that point was a demo for Metal Gear Solid 2 that came bundled with the game Zone of the Enders.  Twisted Metal Black had smooth visuals with lots of detail.  The levels were huge and expansive.  Each car had lots of little touches sprinkled on them as well be it riveted plates or bullet holes.  Missile launchers would roll out when equipped and any first-time player was wowed when Sweet Tooth’s ice cream truck transformed into a mech-like killer clown.  Gameplay was fast and the controls tight.  A twin analog stick approach made quick turns easy to pull off and arcade physics meant cars weren’t flipping over constantly.  Each car handled differently giving the game a great deal of variety and just about all of the special weapons had their uses.

Sweet Tooth's re-vamped special attack remains as the stand-out visual image from Twisted Metal Black.

The cast included a nice amount of familiar faces and new entrants.  Some old cars, like Outlaw, were completely different from the car that had preceded it.  Some of the returning ones also had new special attacks like Darkside’s ram attack, a great improvement over the old laser weapon.  My favorite was Roadkill, who now sported a charge-up homing missile weapon.  All of the special weapons had two methods of deployment, a standard one and a more technical one.  The technical one was harder to pull off, but dealt more damage and figuring them out was part of the fun.  Every car also had an energy bar for special attacks like freeze balls and shields that could easily change the tide of battle when deployed properly.  A lot of the levels also had hidden areas or visual gags that were fun to exploit.  There were hidden characters too that had to be found throughout the game, some were harder than others.

While the game is head and shoulders above all others in its genre, it did have a couple minor short-comings.  One thing none of the Twisted Metal games ever got right was enemy AI.  Each level is supposed to be a free-for-all but it always felt like the AI was programmed to go after the player and not each other.  While this does enhance the game’s difficulty, it always felt a little cheap.  The game’s final boss also wasn’t the best.  While he was difficult, he didn’t seem to really test the player’s skills.  I have always felt that a good boss battle is like a final exam meant to test how much the player has learned over the course of the game.  This game’s final boss is a helicopter and the approach to beating him is completely different from the approach taken to go after virtually every other enemy.  Vehicles that do not have some kind of missile attack as a special weapon are at an extreme disadvantage too as they have to rely mostly on weak homing missile pick-ups.  And since vehicles can’t really adjust their aim it makes targeting the final boss a pain.  Every encounter just ends up being a case of driving around waiting for either the special weapon to regenerate or for some homing missiles to appear.

Twisted Metal's mascot Sweet Tooth now finds his head permanently aflame.

Aside from that though, I really have few complaints with Twisted Metal Black.  The gameplay is so tight and so fun that I’ve never truly gotten sick of it.  The storylines for each car are also interesting in their own right which lead me to beating it with every single driver.  Death match was just as fun as ever too, though it would have been nice if all of the single player levels were available.  An online edition of Twisted Metal Black was released later on for free for early adopters of Sony’s online network.  I never played it but it always made sense to bring Twisted Metal to the internet.  This Tuesday, the latest game in the series arrives.  Simply titled Twisted Metal, it actually puts more emphasis on the online component.  It was initially conceived as an online only game but Sony was impressed with it so much they decided to make it a full game and had developer Eat, Sleep, Play (made up of ex Incognito/Singletrac members) craft a story mode.  It sounds like the story mode will mostly be an after-thought and only focus on three participants which has me feeling rather disappointed.  I hope to be pleasantly surprised though.  Twisted Metal also appears to be taking the Mario Kart approach of letting the player pick the car’s driver and then choose the vehicle.  This must be how the game can supply all of the old favorites while only having three storylines.

Regardless of how the new Twisted Metal turns out, I can’t imagine it topping Twisted Metal Black.  Sure it will look better, it might even control better, but if the total package exceeds Black’s I’ll be shocked.  This Greatest Games feature I’m doing is not in any particular order, but if it was, Twisted Metal Black would be a strong number two.  I love this game and I’ll never get rid of my copy.  For those who missed out, the new Twisted Metal is being released with a download code to get the original Twisted Metal Black which is one of the best bonus features in gaming history.  You now have no excuse for missing this one.

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.

Greatest Games: Final Fantasy Tactics

Final Fantasy Tactics (1997)

It’s been stated multiple times here at The Nostalgia Spot, but it will be said at least one more time:  the RPG landscape in America was dominated by Squaresoft in the 90’s.  Mostly, it was dominated by one franchise, Final Fantasy.  Ignoring the absurdity of a franchise titled Final Fantasy spawning over a dozen sequels, there seemed to be little room for other games in the RPG genre in America.

Things would change on the Playstation.  Suddenly, gamers were embracing the genre more than the franchise.  This was only a recent development in America, but in Japan gamers were consuming every RPG under the sun.  Enix was perhaps the biggest developer, or it at least had the biggest franchise, Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in the US during that time), and Atlus was also around with its Megami Tensei series.  For all of these games to compete they had to do things differently.  American gamers were used to only one kind of RPG at the time, the turn-based medieval type, but other developers were popularizing a different take on that genre.  The developer leading the charge was called Quest, and found a nice niche for itself with the strategy RPG genre popularized by its Ogre Battle franchise.  Ogre Battle was released in small quantities in the US making it very hard to come by.  Those who did play it seemed to enjoy it quite a bit and this small developer was attracting a lot of attention for itself.  When its head developer Yasumi Matsudo left the company, Square was there to scoop him up which lead to the development and release of Final Fantasy Tactics for the Playstation in 1997 (’98 in the US).

Square basically had Matsudo take his critically acclaimed Tactics Ogre game and dress it up with the Final Fantasy franchise.  This wasn’t anything new for Squaresoft as was noted in my write-up on Seiken Densetsu 3, Square loved taking lower profile franchises and slapping the Final Fantasy brand on them to garner more attention and sales.  There are similarities between the traditional Final Fantasy games and Final Fantasy Tactics, making this one branding a little more genuine than some of the others.  Both follow traditional RPG conventions of hit points, magic points, experience points, and so on.  The job system featured in Final Fantasy III and V is also used here with most of the jobs, or classes, being directly lifted from those titles.  There was even a cross-over between Tactics and Final Fantasy VII as users could find Cloud and recruit him to their army.  Later games in the Final Fantasy series would return to the setting of Tactics, most notably Final Fantasy XII.

The battle screen.

Where things change though is when the player takes control.  In a traditional Final Fantasy, a lot of time is spent roaming the plains, mountains, and other scenery as well as frequenting towns and conversing with the locals.  Tactics cuts all of that stuff out, and instead the player really only moves from one battle to the next.  The other major difference is how those battles unfold.  They’re still turn-based, meaning the characters do not attack one another in real time, only now battles unfold on a grid-based map.  Each character has a speed and movement rating that determines when they attack and how many spaces they can move in a given turn.  In a lot of ways, the gameplay is what happens when one takes a traditional turn-based RPG and combines it with Chess.  Placement of enemies becomes important, as attacks are more deadly from the side or behind as opposed to face to face (Tactics rewards cowardice).  Magic users are particularly frail and should be kept away from direct combat.  Their spells also often strike in a set pattern so players are forced to be careful about how they arrange their units as a bunched up group is more vulnerable to spells.  This also leads to risk VS reward scenarios where you may have to hit one of your units to strike at an enemy with a potentially devastating spell.  Another big change is death, which can be permanent if you aren’t careful.  When a unit falls in battle, the player has a set number of turns to revive the unit before death becomes permanent.  It sucks to lose that character you’ve been building up for hours upon hours.

The job system was wonderfully utilized for this game.  In fact, it’s almost always utilized well but here it’s particularly strong.  A lot of the jobs are interesting and useful, which makes mixing and matching a lot of fun.  Though if there’s one super job it’s definitely the ninja.  Ninjas are perhaps famously over-powered in Tactics.  They’re fast, can dual wield katanas, and have a large range of movement.  Their only downside is they’re fairly weak defensively and start off a bit weak offensively as well.  Invest enough time though and they become a destructive force to be reckoned with.  Early on it’s suicide to send one straight into the fray because of their weak armor rating, but once they can dole out enough damage, it doesn’t matter.  They’ll take out their target in one attack and counter-attack anyone who tries to hit them.  I never tried it, but I bet a team of mostly ninjas could take out most anything.

Despite playing very differently, there were some familiar sites in Tactics for Final Fantasy veterans.

That wouldn’t be much fun though, as the other classes are interesting in their own right.  Magic users are particularly lethal, but a challenge to use because their spells take a while to cast.  There’s a lot of trial and error with them as you get used to how long it takes a given spell to charge and then discharge.  The summoners are even tougher to use but can be rewarding if enough time is invested.  There’s also the seemingly weak chemist who’s basically a medic, until you realize they can utilize rifles later in the game and become deadly snipers.  There’s a ton of options for mixing and matching and that’s a big part of the fun.  Beyond the customization options though, the battles are just a blast to play through.  Which is a good thing because they’re not short and sweet like a typical Final Fantasy battle.  A random encounter with some monsters in the woods can take a good 20 minutes to get through, sometimes longer.  There’s a lot that goes into each one and it’s extremely rewarding to see your plan executed to perfection.  It’s also rewarding to see that plan fail and find a way to troubleshoot what your opponent is throwing at you.  Winning with only one unit standing at the end has its own kind of reward when compared with a route.  As a result, “level-grinding” in this game is a lot more interesting than in other Final Fantasy games.

Another aspect of the game many cite as feeling fresh is the plot.  In truth, the gameplay is so engrossing the game could have easily overcome a weak plot (that’s basically what all of the sequels have done) but it manages to turn that into a strong point.  At it’s heart, it depicts two friends on opposite sides of a war; protagonist Ramza, and commoner Delita.  Ramza is of noble birth, and Delita a commoner but they became best friends as kids.  Their world of Ivalice has a strong class system and is in a state of turmoil following its king’s death.  This results in The Lion War, which is the main conflict but through so many twists and turns it becomes muddled.  There’s treachery, deceit, heresy, murder, and everything you can think of.  It’s incredibly dense, so much so that it can become hard to follow.  Most of that is due to the technical limitations of the Playstation.  Long cut scenes full of text can be tiresome to read following a long battle, and the battles are so good sometimes there’s a temptation to just mash the X button to get to the next one.  If one takes the time to really read and digest the story line though it’s quite rewarding and perhaps the best one out of every Final Fantasy game Square has produced.  The original localization kind of stunk though, I’m not sure if future releases have remedied it or not.

The PSP re-release from 2007.

Final Fantasy Tactics was released shortly after the mega hit Final Fantasy VII.  It kind of got overlooked, especially because it was so different.  I remember a few of my friends at the time not liking it because it was so different and not what they expected.  That’s the risk a developer takes when it pastes a familiar franchise name onto a different game.   Those that went in with open minds though found something truly engrossing and memorable.  Even though it didn’t move a tremendous amount of units upon release, Sony chose to re-release it as a Greatest Hits title and Square-Enix would later port the game to the PSP as Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions.  Because so many gamers skipped out on it in 1997-98, it’s become one of those games that has seen its reputation improve with age.  If you’re one of those gamers and enjoy strategy RPG’s, go back and play this one.  The more recent entries in the Tactics series can’t hold a candle to it.

Greatest Games: Seiken Densetsu 3 (Secret of Mana 2)

Seiken Densetsu 3 (1995)

Back in the early 90’s the RPG genre was just starting to take off in America.  The king of the RPG was undoubtedly Squaresoft, often referred to as just Square (and now Square-Enix).  Square’s flagship title was and is the Final Fantasy series and I’ve already made a few posts on that one.  And while I selected Final Fantasy VII as my pick for best of the series, it won’t be appearing in my Greatest Games feature.  Why?  For the same reason you won’t see Ocarina of Time, it’s just been talked about too much.

Now I’m purposely going for obscurity with my picks because that would be dishonest.  I’m going with my favorites of all time and just avoiding a couple of the token titles.  It just so happens that Seiken Densetsu 3 happens to fit the obscure mold.

While Square was carving out a niche with Final Fantasy, Nintendo was smoking the competition with Zelda.  Square’s games usually stuck to the mold of what we now call the Japanese RPG.  Which is to say the gameplay was turn-based, the player attacks and then the CPU attacks.  There were hit points, experience points, magic points, and probably other types of points.  If you’ve ever played a Final Fantasy, Draqon Quest, or even Pokémon game then you know what I’m talking about.  And even though this was Square’s bread and butter it wasn’t the only thing they could pull off.

I don’t know if the original Seiken Densetsu was meant to mimic the original Zelda, but that’s how it felt.  It was released for the Game Boy as a Final Fantasy spin-off because Square felt it’s only chance to succeed was to brand it as a Final Fantasy title.  It wasn’t released in the US until 1998 (as Final Fantasy Adventure) though so by the time American audiences were playing it they didn’t know they had already played its sequel.

Secret of Mana (1993)

It’s sequel, was of course, Seiken Densetsu 2 but American audiences know that one better as Secret of Mana.  Secret of Mana was released in 1993 for the Super Nintendo to pretty positive reviews.  It’s a game that still has a loyal following to this day.  I remember Square put some muscle behind this one too with a lot of TV spots advertising it.  It sold fairly well, though it didn’t do huge numbers.  Like its predecessor, it’s an action RPG similar to Zelda.  The player controls one of three heroes at any given time as they traverse the world fighting typical fantasy type enemies.  There was magic, dragons, and an epic tale that was probably hard to follow (I really don’t remember the plot, it’s been awhile) and overall it was a fun package.  As I mentioned, you controlled one of three characters at any given time while the AI controlled the other two.  A friend could even plug in a second controller and take command of one of the unused characters at any time, something Zelda didn’t do.

Secret of Mana is a great game, but I happen to prefer the sequel.  Most people refer to it as Secret of Mana 2, but since it never received a release outside of Japan it was never officially given that title.  I’m not sure why it never saw release in the US.  Certainly the first game did well enough to warrant a sequel, and the new game was received quite well by critics and press alike in the Land of the Rising Sun.  Rumor has it the game had some bugs that Square was concerned about getting past Nintendo of America’s testing.  I’ve never seen reports of the Japanese version having bugs, and never encountered any myself, so that sounds a bit fishy.  I’m thinking it was a cost/benefit issue.  The game was released in September of 1995 and was a pretty big game with an expensive cartridge.  It’s safe to say, that if a full localization was done on the title it wouldn’t have been made available until spring of 1996 which was pretty late in the SNES life cycle.  Square also had a number of other titles in the pipeline and they likely just felt that it didn’t make sense to slip this one in.  It’s tough to say if they made the right decision or not from a commercial standpoint, I certainly could see the game getting a lukewarm reception in the market place.  Creatively though, it’s a shame because American gamers missed out.

My preferred team: Angela, Kevin, Hawk.

Suffice to say, if you live outside of Japan and want to play this bad boy you have few options.  One is to import it.  You’ll either need a Japanese Super Famicom to play it or you’ll have to rig a Super Nintendo to accept Japanese carts.  There’s also the illegal route which is emulation.  Some devoted fans took the time to translate the game to ROM and released it several years ago.  Don’t ask me where to download it because I have no idea nor do I know if it’s even still widely available.  Needless to say, if you want to play it you’re on your own.

That said, if you do take the time to track down a copy you will be well rewarded.  Secret of Mana 2 plays a lot like the first Secret of Mana.  You still have control of up to 3 characters, you still travel the world in the same manner killing stuff and the magic system is basically the same.  Everything is just bigger.  The first game had 3 playable characters, but the sequel has 6.  You pick which 3 you want right from the start and they’re all worked into the plot of the game.  You start with one main character and then the other two will get introduced.  This means the game’s plot changes a little depending on who you select which adds some replay value.  All of the character’s have their strengths and weaknesses.  Some are melee heavy while others are magic heavy.  In general, the game goes for a 2/2/2 system.  There are two warrior types, Kevin and Duran; two rogue characters, Riesz (Lise in the fan translation) and Hawkeye (Hawk); and two magic users, Charlotte (Carlie) and Angela.  I’ve played through the game with every character, and I prefer the team of Kevin, Hawk, and Angela.  Kevin is a beast-man and has the cool ability to transform into a werewolf at night which earns him lots of style points.  Everyone has their uses though.

The game also added a neat level up system.  At certain levels your character could evolve, kind of like what Pokémon would end up doing, in a chosen way.  The first one let you go in a Light or Dark selection, and then again a second time.  This not only affected how the character looked but also what abilities they learned.  You had four possible outcomes for each one, again adding a lot of replay value, and they were pretty balanced.

Mechanically, one of the big changes was in the combat system.  In Secret of Mana, your character could charge their attack to unleash better moves.  In this one as your character attacked a meter would fill up.  Once full, a special attack could be unleashed.  These attacks were much flashier than the ones in Secret of Mana though the overall mechanic was slightly less strategic.  Battles do get repetitive at times, especially because enemies re-spawn after you leave and return to a screen, though the night and day cycle livens things up a bit.

Visually the game is quite nice to look at.  It’s a step up from the first and I’ve always loved the SNES sprites.  There’s a nice color palette as well and the magic effects provide some flair.  Even today, this one still is pretty nice to look at (if you grew up on these kind of games, not sure what the younger crowd thinks).  The boss battles are numerous and lively and present a nice challenge.  I honestly don’t remember much of the game’s plot, but I don’t recall it being bad so I guess that’s a plus.

This one is still nice to look at 16 years after its release.

Ever since Secret of Mana arrived on US shores the franchise has been supported by Square.  The original Seiken Densetsu was re-made for the Game Boy Advance as Sword of Mana in 2003 and Secret of Mana has seen release on the Wii’s Virtual Console.  Other Mana games have been released for both home consoles and handhelds to varying degrees of success.  For me, none of the newer games have come close to matching Secret of Mana or Secret of Mana 2.  Considering how easy it is to get a game to market these days, either via material or digital means, it’s surprising to me that Square-Enix has never taken the time to localise Seiken Densestsu 3 for a global release.  With how fond of remakes the developer is, it would make sense to dress it up a bit for a release on a handheld at least.  It seems like every Final Fantasy game has been released 2 or 3 times at this point, how about showing some love for Secret of Mana 2?

I’m glad I got to play through it, multiple times at that, as I’ve stopped holding my breath for a true release.  As far as 16-bit action/adventure titles go, this one is right up there with A Link to the Past.  If you get the chance, check it out.

Greatest Games: Resident Evil 2

Resident Evil 2 (1998)

Recently I was having a conversation with someone about all things Resident Evil.  I recalled fondly the survival horror component of the original titles, the horrid controls, and lackluster voice acting.  We recalled the cheap scares, scarce ammo, and the at times punishing difficulty.  We remembered it all, the good and the bad.

Resident Evil arrived when developers were still trying to get a hang on this whole 3D thing.  In the original, you could play as Chris or Jill, agents for an elite combat force known as S.T.A.R.S. and were tasked with navigating your way through a treacherous old mansion.  Both characters handled like tanks.  Left and right on the Playstation’s d-pad would pivot the character while up or down would move the character.  Holding down a button would make the character run and while running it was possible to turn slightly, though to make a hard 90 degree turn you had to bring the character to a complete stop.  One of the shoulder buttons would ready the character’s weapon and the action button would make them fire.  There was no lock on technology of any kind, you pointed and shot in all directions.  Running and gunning Contra style was out, your agent had to stop if he/she wanted to fire off a few rounds at a zombie or two.

The controls were a gigantic obstacle for players.  Most of the game’s difficulty stemmed from trying to maneuver amongst the many enemies that filled the rooms.  Other than the zombies, most of the enemies were far quicker and agile than either Chris or Jill.  It would have been easy to just pull out the biggest guns and have at it, but ammo was so scarce the game practically encouraged you to run away from most encounters.  That’s where the survival component came into play.  Only when backed into a corner was it wise to pull out a bazooka or flame thrower.  And using anything other than a pistol on a zombie was a rookie mistake.  Health was scarcer than ammo and often you were forced to gamble when in a caution state and hope for the best rather than use a precious can of first aid spray.

Resident Evil had many warts, but it managed to be so compelling in spite of them.  Likely because the only game to come close to matching its atmosphere was the under the radar Alone in the Dark for the PC.  The first RE wasn’t really a critical darling, but managed to sell well and hype for an eventual sequel was running high.

The new protagonists for Resident Evil 2, Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield.

Enter Resident Evil 2.  Released in 1998 for the Playstation, Resident Evil 2 kept what worked in the first game and also kept a lot of what didn’t.  Namely, the controls were just as cumbersome as always and the voice acting wasn’t much better (though it at least wasn’t laughably abysmal).  Maybe because gamers and reviewers had grown accustomed to the game’s controls, the sequel was able to garner better reviews.  The visuals were improved and Raccoon City was a more varied setting for new comers Leon and Claire.  The main game was shorter, but a new mechanic was added that encouraged replaying the game multiple times.  Each character had an A and B game, depending on which character was used first.  For example, if Leon was chosen from the onset, completing his game would open up Claire’s B game.  Some items crossed-over, meaning if you didn’t pick them up in Leon’s game Claire could get them.  There was also one room that could only be accessed in the B game if certain conditions were satisfied in the A game.  The B game was also a great deal harder.  Beating both A and B games with an “A” ranking on one would open up a third scenario where you played as an Umbrella trooper named Hunk in a more action-oriented environment.  Beating the game 6 times opened up a fourth scenario where you played as a piece of tofu who could only wield the knife (more of an achievement than a viable gameplay mode).

The game looked better than the original, and holds up quite well today for a Playstation title.  The presentation was more “Hollywood” than the previous game with FMV sequences and other scripted events that heightened the drama of the game’s rather B-movie quality plot.  There were big boss encounters and moments that really made you jump in your seat.

Vicious enemies, close quarters, crappy pistol. Good luck!

While it wasn’t all that much different from the original game, I found RE2 far more enjoyable.  I’m not really sure what it is, maybe it just had to do with me spending more time with the sequel.  With the first game, I only ever rented it with friends.  As such, I never quite got a good grasp of the controls and found the game frustrating.  With RE2, I fell for the hype and picked it up when it was released.  I played through the A game easily enough though it would take me awhile compared to later play-throughs (probably close to 5 hours).  The B game though, that was a challenge!  That’s the one that had the big trench coat guy who would pop up from time to time to scare the crap out of you (and dish out some pain as well).  My first attempt at it was also with Claire who I found more difficult to play as given her unique weapons compared with Leon’s (her bow gun had only one use, pinning crows to the walls).  The boss fight with RE2’s version of the Tyrant character from the first game was especially difficult.

I stuck with RE2 though, and eventually I was blazing through the game in about 2 hours.  It was always rewarding to see my play improve.  When I first started playing the game I’d try to shoot my way through, but repeated attempts had me weaving in between zombies and other enemies and using as little ammo as possible.  Tyrant?  No problem.  I memorized the location of every key or other special item and unlocked the bonus games.  I beat RE2 almost as thoroughly as one could, outside of beating the Tofu game (that one is beyond my skill, though I admittedly never gave it much of a try).

The enjoyable part about it is that I didn’t really play the game to unlock those additional game modes.  I didn’t keep playing for some silly achievement or virtual trophy, I played it just because it was fun.  It’s the amount of enjoyment I received from playing this game that has earned it a place in my top 10.  Future games in the series have far surpassed it from a technical standpoint.  Controls have been improved and the plot has taken the protagonists all over the world.  Truthfully, the best game in the franchise is probably Resident Evil 4, but the game I’ve enjoyed the most has definitely been Resident Evil 2.

The Greatest Games I’ve Ever Played

When discussing a particular favorite of mine I tend to cite something as “one of my all-time favorites” and let that statement hang in the air.  Recently I began playing just such a title and got to thinking about this more in depth; what are the best games I’ve ever played?

Those N64 graphics really have not aged well.

When I get into a gaming lull, such as what I’m in at the moment, it’s easy for me to get down on the current crop of games.  Nostalgia has a funny way of tinting things and convinces us things were always better than they are now.  That certainly can be true for a lot of things though often times it’s a false impression.  With games, I hear it quite frequently whenever a new wrestling game is discussed.  Fans cling to the old THQ game WWF No Mercy and often cite that game’s greatness when discussing the faults of whatever the latest release is.  And while that game is a good one, and probably did some things better than the current generation, it truly was surpassed long ago as the greatest grappler of all time, if it ever even truly held that distinction (I suppose that’s an argument for another time).

That said, this current generation of consoles hasn’t produced a whole lot I would consider to be among my favorites of all time.  Perhaps it’s not fair to assume more games like that should be released when it’s challenging for the truly great in any medium to come along.  How many new movies that come out in a given year can be considered among the medium’s all-time best?  One, if any, probably.

So how many games have been released for the PS3/Wii/360 will I remember as some of my favorites?  A few.  There’s Red Dead Redemption, which ended up being a lot more than just Grand Theft Auto Cowboy.  Mass Effect 2 is certainly in the running and the super hero genre has never received a game better than Batman: Arkham Asylum.  There might even be a few more, but that’s a solid start.  And here’s hoping Skyrim enters the discussion in a month or so.

Maybe some of my favorites have been released this life cycle, but I’m not ready to anoint any of them yet.  Plus this is a blog that caters to nostalgia and while I may post game reviews for new titles, a feature like this one should focus on the oldies.

Sorry, but you're only 9 years old! Check back next year.

I made a list of what I considered my favorite games of all time.  Off the top of my head, my list totaled over 20 but I wanted to limit this feature to a top 10 of sorts.  I immediately cast aside anything that wasn’t at least 10 years old.  A solid decade is enough time for an opinion to be formed and take root.  This meant some of favorites did get cut-off.  One of which, Warcraft III, just barely missed out as that one is only 9 years old.  Another was Metal Gear Solid 3.  I suppose I could have just replaced it with one of the two games that came before it, but I felt like my heart wouldn’t really be in it, so no MGS in my top 10.

I also eliminated any obvious selections, so no Ocarina of Time.  Why?  Because there’s probably already a million other blogs and review sites out there telling you the game is a classic.  What’s one more really going to add to things?  In addition to knocking off the Zelda franchise, this also knocked out the traditional Mario titles.  It’s not that I don’t love me some Super Mario World, it’s just been talked about enough.

Despite that criteria, my list isn’t going to be full off obscure titles.  There’s some that could be classified that way and a few obvious ones.  Once I established my criteria for this feature I began weighing each game amongst the pack.  I already had a couple that I knew had to be included, but some tough decisions had to be made for others.  I basically just picked them apart and started crossing off the games with the most faults until I got my 10.

The last two were particularly difficult.  I can’t even remember which game I was stacking this one up against, but number 11 became Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil.  As great as the game is, I realized my biggest argument for keeping it on the list over the game it was duking it out with was because of it’s obscurity, which seemed like the wrong reason.  I love the game so much though, that I figured I’d show it some love in this intro piece.

Klonoa 2: Lunatea's Veil (2001)

Klonoa 2 is the Playstation 2 sequel to a game that was released in 1998 on the original Playstation.  Published by Namco, Klonoa 2 is one of the first 2.5D platformer titles, meaning the graphic’s engine renders everything in full 3D but the gameplay is more like a 2D side-scrolling platform title.  This is the type of approach Capcom would take with its Viewtiful Joe franchise and Nintendo would implement for New Super Mario Bros.  I don’t know if Klonoa was the first of its kind to utilize this, but it was definitely the first game of its type that I played.

Klonoa is a typical platform character in that he’s furry and cute but it’s kind of hard to figure out just what kind of animal he is.  His design has a little spunk to it with a backwards hat and giant shorts.  He has two big floppy ears that allow him to hover momentarily and extend jumps.  The main gameplay mechanic centers on Klonoa’s ring.  The ring (which he holds with his hand because it’s huge) shoots out a grappling hook-like beam that grabs enemies.  Klonoa can then hurl those enemies as a weapon or use them for a double jump.  Some enemies or objects will have propellers or something that allow Klonoa to do other things with them as well.

Instead of being a left-to-right and collect everything type of game, Klonoa tends to focus more on puzzles than anything else.  Often there’s switches that need to be activated in a certain manner that isn’t always clear.  Early on in the game things are pretty simple but the challenge factor gets upped the further you progress.  It never becomes truly difficult, but is often satisfying.  There are boss encounters that often play with the perspective.  Usually Klonoa is on a bridge or a ring and the boss will be in the center giving the game more of a 3D feel at times while still maintaining the classic 2D “invisible wall” restrictions.  The game is also quite colorful and a joy to behold.  Namco went with a cel-shading look which was growing in popularity at the time and it works very well with the game’s visual style.  The story line isn’t anything ground-breaking, but it’s presented well with nice cutscenes throughout.  Namco chose not to dub any of the characters so they chirp in Japanese (or what I think is Japanese, I suppose it could just be gibberish) and it actually works as these types of games usually end up with some horrendous voice acting.

Look how cute he is with his backwards hat and giant zipper!

That’s a quick and dirty overview of Klonoa 2 but what’s most important to know is that the game is just plain fun.  It’s a true joy to play and the level design is on par with Mario’s best.  And really, outside of Mario’s best, this is one of my favorite platforming games of all time.  I’d easily take it over any of the 3D platformers put out by Rare and Insomniac.  It can be had for less than $20 on eBay so if you’re itching for a good platforming experience definitely check it out.

So be on the look-out for my official top 10 greatest games I ever played feature.  I’ll have plenty more to say on the subject.  This feature will differ from my top 10 albums list as I don’t plan on actually numbering them.  I don’t know what order I’ll even post them in but I’ll try to break up titles that may be similar to one another (I did restrict myself to only one game per franchise, so things shouldn’t get too repetitive).  I do, however, have a favorite game of all time and I will save that one for last.  And lastly, if you’re curious, most of these games will be from the Playstation era.  I didn’t plan it out that way, it’s just how it ended up.  Even though when I think of old games my mind immediately goes to the original Nintendo and 16 bit systems.  I guess in 10 years if some other 20-somethin’ blogger decides to make a similar list it will be populated by Xbox and PS2 games, if not 360 and PS3.

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