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Catching up with MVP Baseball 2005

MVP_Baseball_2005_CoverartWe’ve had a warm winter up here in New England. That’s been especially true of late as Spring has really been in the air, even though it’s technically still weeks away. Whenever the weather starts to warm and the air has that damp taste to it, I start to think of baseball. Open windows, lemonade, Wiffle Ball out in the yard, and Spring Training on TV. Or rather, that would be true if not for the fact that we’re all basically self-quarantining this year thanks to the COVID19 virus, but I digress. This time of year makes me especially nostalgic for my college years when I had time to consume baseball in ridiculous quantities. I’d watch Baseball Tonight on ESPN religiously and look forward to the annual publication of the Baseball Prospectus handbook. As a fan of the Boston Red Sox, it was an especially good time to be a baseball junkie as the team finally captured World Series glory during that period. I had grown up a fan of the team watching the likes of Roger Clemens, John Valentin, and Mo Vaughn, among others always wondering what it would be like to see the team actually win something, but never really expecting it to happen.

It was during this period that I also spent many, many, hours with baseball video games. I had played some games on the my Nintendo Entertainment System when I was a kid, but the first baseball video game I fell in love with was the inaugural World Series Baseball for the Sega Genesis. I actually took the time to play through an entire season in that game more than once. The menus and interface were rather clunky, but the game itself was a blast to play. Back then, it was still a novelty just to have the actual Major League Baseball Player’s Association license alongside the actual MLB license. Many games had one or the other so you either had real teams with no-name players or real players on generic teams. After the 16-bit era ended, I drifted away from sports gaming. Falling in love with fighters, RPGs, and the occasional platformer meant I just didn’t have time. Perhaps getting a bit burnt out on some of those games is what brought me back when the PlayStation 2 era took off.

I bounced around from franchise to franchise initially when it came time to find a baseball game to enjoy. The first I came to love was 3DO’s High Heat. The gameplay was simple, but really fun, and it was the first title where I encountered a Guess Pitch gimmick as well as what has come to be known as Zone Hitting. Guess Pitch allowed you to predict what pitch was coming, guessing right meant a boost to performance while guessing wrong meant a penalty should you swing. Zone Hitting was an alternative to the cursor approach of World Series Baseball. With a cursor, you moved a reticle around the strike zone to try and guess where the pitch would arrive. You could try to adjust on the fly as well, though on the Genesis the response time made that difficult. With analog controls, it was easier, but it was never a mechanic I liked. Zone Hitting simplifies the cursor mechanic by breaking the strike zone down into nine zones or areas:  upper left, upper middle, upper right, middle left, middle-middle, middle right, bottom left, bottom middle, and bottom right. With a right-handed batter at the plate, pushing up and to the left (10 o’clock or so) meant your batter would try to hit a pitch that was up and in. It was a similar philosophy to cursor hitting, but required less precision. It made it much easier to adjust on the fly to a pitch and felt like a more realistic approach to the game.

High Heat was a lot of fun, but it really lacked the bells and whistles of other games. I would move onto the newer iteration of World Series Baseball put out by Sega and 2k which had the ESPN license as well. The 2003 version was the first time I played a baseball game that let you pitch with a camera placed behind the pitcher, like a television broadcast. I sunk many, many, hours into that game even though I never felt like I truly loved it. I wanted something more, and EA had an answer.

EA had been the market leader in the 32 bit era with its Triple Play franchise. That one was allowed to grow stagnant though and was in need of a serious overhaul. The PS2 edition was not well received, causing EA to make the drastic decision to axe the franchise in favor of a new one:  MVP Baseball. MVP immediately caught my attention due to the inclusion of a pitch meter. Borrowing the popular mechanic often seen in golf sims, the pitch meter was a way to add more player involvement to baseball. Basically every baseball game up to that point left the precision of where a pitch ends up to the A.I. of the pitcher being used. The meter puts some of that back in the hands of the player as they push a face button on the controller corresponding with the pitch they want to start the meter and hold it down to increase velocity. As the meter fills it turns from blue to red. Letting go brings the meter swinging back the other direction where another timed press needs to be initiated to stop the meter in a green zone. Depending on the effectiveness of the pitcher, the effectiveness of the selected pitch type, amount of velocity, and the pitcher’s level of fatigue, determines how large this green area is. This helps to separate the good pitchers from the poor ones, but also means players who are really good at using the meter can get the most out of the back of their bullpen.

batterpitcher

The standard view of the game. EA was quite proud of the picture-in-picture base-running at the time.

The first version of MVP Baseball was a bit rough around the edges. I passed on it, but I did so with the intent of buying the next version assuming EA ironed out the kinks. And they did, for the most part, as MVP Baseball 2004 ended up being my chosen game that summer. It was great, and the only blemish was the dreaded lefty glitch. Left-handed hitters had their power squashed to the point where the only way to usually hit a home run was to hold up and in on the analog stick and sit dead red. Come the following year though, that glitch was rectified and it was no longer exceedingly difficult to launch bombs with a hitter like David Ortiz. In addition to that, the game also had a robust Owner Mode added to go along with the popular Dynasty Mode from the prior year. Single-A affiliates were added to both modes giving players access to a deep minor league system. Additional mini games sweetened the deal and many fans seemed to agree that MVP Baseball had become the premiere baseball video game of its time.

Unfortunately, that was the last iteration of MVP Baseball as a Major League franchise. A few months before release, EA shocked the sports gaming world by locking up the exclusive video game rights to the National Football League. This put an end to the 2k franchise NFL 2k and set off a mini arms race for league rights. 2k responded by locking up the exclusive third party rights to Major League Baseball. This meant the end for both of my preferred sports franchises, and I was devastated. A college edition of MVP followed, but it just wasn’t the same for me. The only silver lining is that 2k’s deal did not prevent first-party publishers from licensing MLB for their games opening the door for Sony San Diego’s MLB The Show which has become the new standard in baseball sims. 2k’s World Series Baseball deteriorated into mediocrity eventually leading to the cancellation of the franchise. As far as I know, nothing is preventing EA from getting back into the baseball business, but baseball games aren’t as hot as football so apparently nothing has convinced the publisher to do just that.

As I have with the last edition of NFL 2k, I’ve found myself compelled to revisit the greatness that is MVP Baseball 2005. I’ve never been as compelled to return to it as I was with the NFL product, but I think that has a lot to do with the quality of The Show. The Show was never shy about taking from MVP what worked making the early versions of it feel like a clone of sorts. It eventually found its own identity, and I’m quite confident in stating that modern versions of that franchise are superior to MVP Baseball 2005, something I also had to begrudgingly admit when it comes to modern Madden vs NFL 2k5. Still, that doesn’t mean MVP has been rendered irrelevant. There’s a reason a dedicated modding community has continued to exist for the PC version keeping the game as up to date as any other. Since I have a PS2 copy, I can’t take advantage of such things, but that’s fine by me as part of the joy of playing this is seeing the old rosters largely populated by players who have since retired.

manny05

Most of the players look all right, some are certainly better than others. Most have this same “dead eye” look Manny has.

EA has always been great at adding a layer of polish to the presentation of its games and MVP carries on that tradition. A fun video intro gets the game rolling along with an introduction from a real life player, coach, or fans letting you know “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game,” a slogan heard many times back then. Boston’s Manny Ramirez was the cover athlete for this edition I guess owing to him being named World Series MVP the prior season. Since this is the game that comes fresh off that legendary title, it makes it quite easy for me to find affection for it, even if the 2005 Red Sox weren’t a particularly fun bunch.

I’m playing this game on a PlayStation 3 hooked up to a modern television. I feel this should be mentioned because out of all of the sports genres, baseball games have benefitted the most from high definition. It makes the batter/pitcher interface a lot easier to see for my aging eyes, so going to a more grainy presentation like this takes some adjustment. MVP added a new mechanic for the 2005 edition that color codes pitches as they’re being delivered. The best and most difficult pitchers hide the ball during their wind-up making it tough to see what’s coming until the ball has left their hand. No color means a fastball variant, while red indicates a breaking ball, green a change-up, and purple for sinking pitches. This makes up for the game’s resolution being too low to properly show rotation on the ball. And since pitchers change speeds often, it doesn’t make things that much easier. A pitcher that throws both a curveball and a slider, for instance, has an advantage over one that just has one breaking ball as there is still a reaction element at play as both are colored red. I find the older I get the worse I am at reacting to a good fastball, so in replaying this one I find I like to wait for a change-up and only sit on heat if it’s something I know I can handle.

kevinmillar

Meet Bizarro Kevin Millar.

The graphics in 2005 when the game launched were pretty good, but obviously are a bit lacking today. For the most part, the superstars look the way they should. I think the game does better with the players who have extensive facial hair as it allows them to cover-up a jawline. On the Sox, Jason Varitek and David Wells look particularly good, while Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke hardly resemble their real-life self at all. This was also an era where there were still scab players in the Majors from the 94 strike season who were never allowed entry into the MLBPA as a result. That means a guy like Kevin Millar is replaced by a fake player who does not resemble the real world version in the slightest. Barry Bonds also famously opted out of the licensing agreement apparently thinking he could land his own game or something (he never did) so he’s also been replaced by a fake guy. Some animations are also better than others. Certain swings look great and others do not. Surprisingly, Manny Ramirez’s swing is a bit iffy even though he was the cover athlete. I think that’s partly the result of too much scrutiny being put on him because he’s the cover athlete to make his swing unique and “special” when it really didn’t need much.

hittingminigame

The mini games were a lot of fun in 2005 and they still are today.

I found the mini games were a good place to start in coming back to this title. The pitching mini game is pretty addicting as it turns pitching into a block puzzle game. You have a time limit and need to accrue a certain amount of points to move onto the next round. To do so, you toss pitches at the strike zone which has been filled with colored bricks which correspond to a given pitch in the pitcher’s arsenal. Simply breaking a brick with a pitch will net you some points, but to really drive up the score you have to stack like-colored bricks to create a large swath of that color and then bust them all up with a single pitch. The hitting mini game has you select a hitter and a pitcher (just for their delivery animation, their arsenal of pitches isn’t affected as all will be able to throw everything) to swing at ten pitches. Before each pitch is thrown, the game tells you what it wants you to do with the pitch and gives a general idea of where the pitch will be. Usually, it will want you to either hit a fly ball or grounder, and it will want it to one of the three fields:  left, center, right. Hit both goals and you get a bunch of points plus a point for each foot the ball travels, hit just one and you get a smaller goal or if you miss the goal all together you can still salvage some points via the foot bonus. Miss and go the complete opposite way and you’ll incur a penalty. A foul ball always results in a score of zero. In the field are also obstacles and opportunities for more points. Hit a tractor cutting the grass for an extra 1,000 points, while strike one of the discarded automobiles beyond the outfield fence will also net a small bonus. There’s a vortex that will spit the ball back at home plate as well as ramps which will either reward or penalize the hitter by either speeding up the ball or deadening it. Both games are quite fun, but I found the hitting one to be especially addicting. It’s great to play with a slugger, but I think my favorite hitter to use may be Ichiro since his bat control is amazing.

The other modes, and the ones I used to spend most of my time, are Dynasty and Owner Mode. Dynasty is your typical season or franchise mode. You select a team and basically take over the duties of a general manager. You build the team using the funds dictated by the owner and oversee development of the minor leagues as well. You’re free to play the games, sim them, or manage them. Manager Mode is pretty entertaining and allows you to make a managerial decision for each plate appearance in a game. It’s a quick way to resolve a game while also giving you some involvement. The Show has implemented such, but takes it too far by actually putting you in the game for every pitch which just makes it drag and defeats the purpose.

Owner Mode was new for the 2005 game and it’s basically a more robust version of Dynasty, but with a few added quirks. For starters, you begin the mode by building a new stadium. It’s kind of neat, but really limited. It also feels a bit sacrilegious to select the Chicago Cubs only to not play in Wrigley. This is mostly done though to force you to start from scratch as the way to make money in this mode is by selling tickets and other items related to the ballpark. You need to amass a lot of money to add more seats and concessions if you want to afford the best players. This actually makes selecting a big money power house like Boston or New York really challenging as you’ll struggle to make payments early on. You may even need to jettison some of those expensive veterans just to scrape by.

Owner Mode is pretty neat for what it is, but it’s almost too involved for my taste. I much prefer to be a virtual GM and leave the mundane stuff like ball park maintenance to someone else so Dynasty Mode is where I’m at. And Dynasty Mode is quite good at what it wants to do, but it does come up short compared with modern titles. For one, the interface was never great. Some of the menus are clunky and I miss the feedback of The Show’s trading screen which let you know if a proposed trade was likely to be accepted or not. It feels like a guessing game and since you don’t even know what an A.I. controlled team is after you have little to go on. The same is true for negotiating contracts with players. On my virtual Red Sox team, Bronson Arroyo was unhappy because he was only making 300k. He wanted 2 years at 3M, but I countered with 3 years and that apparently pissed him off. I then upped my offer to 3.5M per year, and he just got angrier. You would think a guy would love a 1,000% pay increase and job security, but I guess not?

05redsox

It is quite a trip to look at these old rosters populated almost exclusively by players who are now retired.

The Player Morale feature is perhaps the most annoying. Players are basically controlled by how often they play relative to the role dictated by their contract, how well they’re playing, and by how much money they’re making. What’s really annoying is that the default roles are way off. Every starting pitcher on the Red Sox, for example, is classified as an MLB Ace. This means they expect to be in the #1 starter position on the depth chart, but obviously there can be only one. Curt Schilling is rightly classified as an ace as that was his status at the time, but even Tim Wakefield has that distinction as does Wade Miley who in the real world had signed a small deal with Boston because he was coming off a major injury. Similarly, guys in the lineup who were added to be platoon players (i.e. they only start when the pitching matchup favors them due to the handedness of the pitcher) like Jay Payton are rated as “MLB Every Day” so they expect to start every day. When players are not deployed in their specified role, you can try and sign them to a new deal to better reflect it, but good luck there. The only other options are to either trade them, release them, or demote them. Somewhat thankfully, the game does not have a realistic system for sending players to the minors so anyone can be sent down. In the real world, a veteran can’t be demoted without consent forcing you to release them.

Another unrealistic aspect in the game concerns minor league players. Twenty years ago, the MLB PA was really hesitant to allow actual money in its games and accurate contracts. They felt it did them no favors to have fans be able to easily see how much money they were making. That was loosening by the time MVP 05 came out, but perhaps it’s why the contract system isn’t perfect. In the real world, a player needs to accrue six seasons worth of service time to qualify for free agency which makes it very easy to hang onto up and coming players. In MVP, they just have a contract that must be dealt with like any other so you could actually lose that star shortstop on your Triple A team before he even sets foot in the Majors. It’s annoying, but it was the standard then. One thing the game does do well though is give you opportunities to improve these prospects via the mini games. During Spring Training, you can put your best prospects through those games which earns them a permanent boost to their underlying stats. My biggest complaint with The Show is that prospect development sucks with most just staying the same. In this game, your can’t miss prospect will likely blossom into a true star if you keep at it. The other unrealistic aspect of Dynasty Mode lies in the offseason. That’s when the draft takes place, even though that actually happens during the season in the real world. It’s not a big deal, but worth pointing out. The offseason is also condensed into 6 weeks for free agency in which you make an offer, sim to next week, and go from there. You’ll be able to track the best offer made to each player and adjust accordingly, or they’ll sign. This is where the player role actually adds to the experience as you may not want to pay someone to be your ace pitcher, for instance, but perhaps you can offer more money. Every player has a desired contract length, amount, and role so it allows for some variety in the negotiations.

mvpminors

A fairly robust Minor League system makes player development a lot fun, but also introduces more cumbersome rosters to manage.

Dynasty Mode is fine for what it is, but none of it really matters if the actual game doesn’t hold up. I’m happy to say that while it certainly has aged, the game is still fun to play. First of all, it moves much faster than modern games which is very much appreciated. I’m used to a game taking over an hour, but I find most of these ones take about 35-40 minutes. The pitch meter takes getting used to, but it’s still a strong mechanic. Hitting is a little less enjoyable. MVP uses zone hitting, referred to as the Pure Swing System, though with the added quirk that pushing up on the stick is done to hit a fly ball while down is meant to influence a grounder. It’s an odd mechanic, but the game largely seems to work best with the old “see the ball, hit the ball” belief and just put the stick where the ball is. If the pitcher throws a down and in fastball, just put the stick down and in. You may still elevate the ball. That’s something that seems more true of the 05 game than the 04 one, but I don’t know if anything was actually changed.

The shortcomings of the game itself are largely technological, but the clunky menus do still present a minor obstacle. Outside of games, managing your various rosters is a chore. They’re slow and not well organized and I wish players had numerical ratings instead of these meters for comparison. In game they’re only marginally better. If you try to access every thing via the Pause menu, you’ll find them slow and lacking in options. For example, you can’t access your bullpen while your team is hitting, so if you forgot to get someone warming before the previous half inning ended then you’re stuck with your current pitcher. That is, unless you realize you can access your bullpen from the Quick Menu achieved by holding down R2 at anytime. The Quick Menu is convenient, but it’s silly that certain functions are only accessible via it. Like many sports games, you’ll also encounter a glitch here and there. I’ve recently run into two such glitches. On one, the A.I. controlled outfielder threw wild into the infield following a flyball out. The ball sailed past the catcher and then just sat on the grass. No one would go get it. Thankfully, I had a runner on second so I had him run around the bases and score which moved things along. It was disappointing though as I was in a one-run game at the time and that was a cheap way to double my lead. Another glitch occurred when my third basemen caught a little pop-up. I don’t know why, but it was scored a hit even though the ump said “Out.” I even checked the replay to make sure it wasn’t a high chopper or something or to see if my player dropped the ball, but no such thing occurred. Thankfully, I got the next batter to hit into a double play.

By far though, the biggest weakness I found with MVP 05 was the artificial intelligence of opposing managers. Even though each game in Dynasty Mode has an impact rating, opposing managers treat every game the same. If you’re in an elimination game and get out to an early lead against the starter, don’t expect him to be pulled. And if he is, you can bet the mop-up man is coming in and he’s going to pitch multiple innings no matter what. He might even do that multiple days in row! You can’t see how much stamina the opposing pitcher has unless you’re in manage mode, but the A.I. managers have no qualms about throwing a guy who is spent. It makes the Playoffs feel less special than they should. I also find the difficulty hard to manage. Simply put, playing on “Pro” or medium difficulty results in a game that’s way too easy. I routinely win games 8-1 or 5-0 on that setting. Bump it up to hard and the inverse becomes the norm. I also found it really hard to strike guys out. Back in the day, I was good enough at the game to hold my own on the hardest setting, so maybe just playing a hundred hours would solve this problem, but I no longer have that kind of free time to devote to a sports game.

The other presentation aspects of the game are less important to me, but worth mentioning. Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow provide the commentary and at the time it was considered really good, but now sounds really limited. Sometimes they give away plays right off the bat which is annoying like when you’re trying to run down a lazy fly and Kuiper calls it a hit while still in the air. The licensed music is basically a mixed bag, you might like it, you probably won’t. It gets repetitive, though I was surprised at how nostalgic it made me feel. Granted, those feelings didn’t last all that long.

I’ve said a lot of words about MVP Baseball 2005 and I could keep going. There’s a lot to dissect with sports titles like this because there are so many nuances to the gameplay, too many to cover them all. Some of those nuances matter more to certain players, but ultimately I think the gameplay here is still fun and a good representative of what the actual game of baseball was like in 2005. I wish the A.I. was better and the contact system more realistic, but if I want that I have modern titles to look to. The real question is will someone who never played this game who has heard how great it was for 15 years be impressed if they pick it up today? It depends on their perspective. If they weren’t playing games 15 years ago, then they probably won’t, but if they’re at least modestly familiar with baseball games of yesterday then they just might be blown away. Anyone who spends enough time with it will probably find something to like, even if it’s just the mini games or the oddly addicting Manager Mode. In short, the game holds up as one of the best baseball titles ever made.


Final Fantasy VII Remake – Demo Impressions

Final-Fantasy-7-Remake-DemoIt’s been a long time since I discussed the possibility of a Final Fantasy VII remake. After mentioning it here and there in other posts, I made a dedicated post on the subject six years ago. And six years ago isn’t even the start of all of this hype, so it’s safe to say this game has been a long time coming. And it’s almost here. In order to drum up excitement (and maybe quell some negative press at release), Square-Enix released a free demo for the remake on the PlayStation Network this week. To access it you simply need a PlayStation 4 and a network connection. You do not need to be a subscriber to Sony’s paid online service. The demo should take about 10 minutes to download and install and contains roughly an hour’s worth of content, so if you’re curious about the game and have yet to check out the demo you might as well go rectify that right now.

The demo contains what I assume will be the start to the main game. If you played the original Final Fantasy VII then it will be quite familiar. You take on the role of Cloud, a mercenary in the employ of Barret Wallace and his organization, Avalanche, which is in the process of storming a mako reactor in the city of Midgar owned and operated by a company named Shinra. As Cloud (who is given that name outright, so no more choosing your own name), you’re expected to take orders, do the job, and collect a paycheck at the end. The goal of the mission is to take down and destroy this reactor, which Barret explains rather passionately is destroying the planet. Basically, if you’re familiar with the original game this is all routine, but if you’re a newcomer you may have some questions, but those will have to wait for retail.

cloud_demo

Cloud is back, and he’s still going with that hairstyle.

It has been an exceptionally long road getting to this point. Final Fantasy VII was released to huge publicity way back in 1997 and is a very popular and beloved title. For many, it was probably their introduction to the franchise as it was only the fourth entry in the series released outside of Japan. And by far, it was the most publicized, though the US version of Final Fantasy VI was no slouch in terms of marketing. It’s hard to say when the thirst for a remake arrived, but it was definitely here after Square unveiled a PlayStation 3 tech demo that contained images of Final Fantasy VII with a new engine. At the time, Square intended this to be just a demo of what a Final Fantasy title could look like on the new hardware, but naturally many fans just wanted to see these resources used to create a new version of a game they loved.

A remake of Final Fantasy VII never arrived during the PlayStation 3’s lifespan, and it was rarely even hinted at. The company line soon came to be “We hear you,” and fans were expected to just keep voicing their desires for a remake in hopes it would one day happen. Well, that day has just about come and it’s going to be met with some degree of dissatisfaction, but overall I think this title will do well for Square-Enix.

support_characters_demo

And all of your friends are back too, like Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie!

First of all, fans have known what to expect leading up to this point. Gone is the old mechanics of the Active Time Battle System and in its place is a more action-oriented gameplay system. Anyone who has played Final Fantasy XV or even Kingdom Hearts III should feel relatively comfortable with this new system, but anyone going straight from Final Fantasy VII to this will likely be left with their head spinning. At the start of the demo, the player just controls Cloud who battles solo. As enemies come into view, Cloud goes from a passive state to a combat position seamlessly. Mashing the square button is really all that needs to happen in order to win the day against these early foes, but there’s a bit more going on under the hood.

As Cloud attacks, his ATB meter fills. Yes, a relic of the past still exists in some form this time out. When that meter fills, Cloud can use Abilities, Spells, and Items at his whim. Pressing the X button brings up a menu which greatly slows down the action onscreen allowing the player to cycle through the options at his or her leisure. In the demo, Cloud has some abilities that should sound familiar, like Braver. These moves do extra damage and consume ATB. For spells, Cloud has access to Fire which isn’t of much use in the demo, save for when Cloud has to fight flying enemies he can’t quite reach with his sword. Under items are a bunch of familiar options like potions and ethers.

cloud_barrett_demo

Oh, and lets not forget the big guy. Barret is the only other playable character in the demo.

Adding a little extra layer of complexity is the fact that Cloud has two methods of attacks. Think of this as a relic from the Squaresoft classic Bushido Blade as Cloud basically has two stances. He begins in Operator mode which is his default approach. With a tap of the triangle button he can move into Punisher mode. In this state, his sword flurries are more elaborate and deal considerably more damage. He also moves much slower making it harder to evade enemy attacks. Blocking or taking damage will knock Cloud out of this mode, so it’s something that is to be deployed in moderation. At work, is a system of staggering in which repeated blows on an enemy fill a bar below their health. When that fills they become staggered and momentarily incapacitated. You won’t get to play with this too much in the demo as the fodder will like fall first, but it would seem the standard play is to attack an enemy until staggered, then bust out Punisher mode to deal additional damage while they can’t move.

About midway through the demo, Barret will enter the fray. When a second member joins the party in battle, switching between the two is as simple as pressing a button. Barret works in the same manner as Cloud, except he’s a ranged fighter and not nearly as fast or nimble. He can more easily hit flying enemies and instead of a Punisher mode he has a charged attack that gradually fills. He also has access to the spells Thunder and Cure, though you should have plenty of potions to render the latter useless for the demo. You can give the A.I. controlled party member commands during battle, though for the demo I found it mostly unnecessary. When controlling Cloud, Barret did a good job of attacking enemies Cloud could not, but I suspect in larger frays with three characters in the main game it may become more necessary to micro-manage the combatants.

aerith_demo

The demo will give you a look at the mysterious flower girl, but don’t expect it to settle the Aerith/Aeris debate.

Combat in the Final Fantasy VII remake has the potential to add layers of complexity. And in some ways it already feels that way, though much of the confrontations in this demo can be resolved by simply mashing the attack button. It remains to be seen if that’s just simply a matter of this being a demo, or if that will be the general flow of combat for lesser enemies (the equivalent of the original’s random encounters) or if the game will demand more from these enemies as it moves along. Near the end of the demo is a boss encounter in which you will have to do more and pay attention to Cloud’s suggestions. He’ll yell out to Barret how to deal with the enemy, and as the player, you’re expected to do the same. These range from what magic to utilize and where to strike. It’s during this battle that you’ll likely encounter Limit Breaks for the first time. They seem to work as they did in the original, though with Braver being a standard move, Cloud’s first Limit Break is now Cross-Slash. I did not see Barrett’s in my play-through.

When not in battle, the game is pretty much just a nicer version of the original. The camera is always behind Cloud, but can be manually controlled via the right analog stick. The visuals are on par with the best titles Square-Enix has produced so you’re not likely to find many complaints there. Cloud more or less resembles his Advent Children self, but he has been noticeably reworked some and I think he looks a little better now. He’s still a touch goofy looking since he’s an anime design made real, but it’s fine. The voice acting is good as well and since these characters have all spoken before since the original game’s release it’s not as surprising as it might have been fifteen years ago. In short, if this game is a failure the production values will have little to do with that.

sweeper

The sweeper is one of the few enemies in the demo that will let you try out more of your arsenal.

Exploring the environment of this demo is not exactly exciting, but it’s also a tutorial disguised as a mission. I don’t want to make assumptions about the rest of the game based on this section. There are some chests scattered about, but they’re all in plain sight. There are boxes Cloud can smash with his sword to uncover items and even some simple obstacles that need to be cleared. Cloud can basically just run, run faster, and swing his sword. When he needs to jump he’ll do it automatically. It appears the old equipment and materia systems will work largely the same, though the game doesn’t give you an introduction to that aspect in the demo. Oddly, I found you have to use the real-time item list (accessed via the X button whether in or outside of battle) to heal via potions and can’t do it from the pause menu. It would be nice to see an auto-heal feature in the main game.

Ultimately, what is going to make or break this game is the combat system and how that aligns with expectations. There are certainly plenty of fans of the more recently released Final Fantasy XV that will likely welcome a more modern, action-oriented, battle system. There are also those who will yearn for the days of old and the turn-based system. There was a rumor making the rounds over the summer that the game could be made into a turn-based one, but that is not the case. You have options to greatly slow it down, but it will never be truly turn-based. It’s more you can make it similar to a Bioware RPG in which you could basically pause the action, issue commands, then resume. I am not surprised that Square went modern with its combat system, though I have reservations about it. The generic encounters are rather mind-numbing. Again, you could say the same of the original, but relentlessly mashing buttons somehow feels more tedious than the old system. As such, I kind of wish it went even more action and added multiple attack buttons, combos, and a more robust parry system. The thought being if you want this to be an action game, just make it an action game. The boss fight does show how the system can be expanded, but the battle was long and when it was over I don’t know that I felt accomplished. I was kind of just glad to be done with it.

scorpion_demo

The climax of the demo is a battle with the Scorpion Sentinel, also a boss from the original. He’s much harder this time around, but still quite manageable.

The other elephant in the room is also just what can fans expect of this initial installment of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Square-Enix has almost gone silent on the subject since it was announced, but this game is not the entire Final Fantasy VII experience. The assumption, which has mostly been confirmed, is that this game only covers the Midgar portion of the original. It basically ends with the rescue of Red XIII, who is reportedly not even playable in the full version. We do not know how many games this remake will span. We know it’s more than one, and that is all. My guess is that it will be three games, just because publishers seem to like trilogies, but how it ties in with the sequels remains unknown. Fans will want their characters to carry-over, but if this stretches beyond two games it seems unlikely the third would be a PlayStation 4 game. There’s no timetable for the release, and considering how long it took to get this out, I have my reservations about diving into an incomplete experience.

This demo largely accomplishes what it needs to. Fans get a taste for how this very intriguing game will work and play. That’s all a demo really needs to do. It can’t answer whether or not the final release will be worth it, but it provides some indication of what to expect. I do think that game, which I presume is around a 15 hour experience, will be largely good. The questions though about when the next installment will arrive gives me some trepidation, enough so that I will not be a day one buyer. I don’t feel like I need to get to this right away considering the full story won’t be available for years. It makes it easy to back-burner as I still have other titles to finish. I think there will be plenty of fans of the old game to make this a commercial success, so I don’t think there is presently any danger of Square abandoning the project. And from a value standpoint, it can be all but assumed that eventually, when all is said and one, there will be a Kingdom Hearts styled package release of all of the titles at a friendlier price.

Final-Fantasy-7-Remake-Opening-Movie-Trailer

The “full” game arrives April 10 on PlayStation 4.

Those are all things to consider. If you don’t care about the release schedule then by all means play the demo, decide if it’s something you want more of, and go ahead and buy it. I expect there will be critical voices out there on Twitter and such, and they will be loud, but not very impactful in terms of sales. This game will do well because there is so much anticipation for it. And because of that anticipation, Square-Enix was right to take its time and basically build this from the ground up, even if I would have personally been really tickled by a “downgrade” in the form of a sprite-based remake. I expect modern gamers to respond well to the new combat mechanics, though I do wonder if people experiencing this for the first time will be left underwhelmed. They may not understand what made the original so big and exciting to begin with. For them, we’ll only be able to offer up a “I guess you had to be there,” explanation and leave it at that.


Bring Arts Weltall Action Figure Review

 

img_4425One of my favorite games from my youth is the role-playing game Xenogears. I think I even declared it as my favorite game of all time when I reviewed it here a few years ago. I don’t know if it is my all-time favorite or not, but it’s still right up there because it did a lot of the things well that I enjoy in a game. Especially for a game released in 1998. In case you’re not familiar, Xenogears is a Japanese RPG published by then Squaresoft and released for the PlayStation game console. It was unique at the time because it chose to mostly stick with two-dimensional sprites for its characters, but placed them in a three-dimensional world. If you’re looking for a modern comp, think Octopath Traveler only with more jaggies – a lot more jaggies.

Xenogears told the story of Fei Fong Wong, an orphaned boy in his late teens with no memory of his past living in a quiet village that will not remain quiet for very long. The village ends up becoming a casualty of war, so to speak, as a battle causes a large robot to be deposited there. Fei ends up piloting this robot, referred to as a gear in the game, because he’s called to do so by an unspeakable force and he ends up bringing death and destruction to the village. Ostracized from the community, but in possession of this very lethal gear, Fei ends up getting caught up in something much bigger than he could have ever imagined. He’ll make new friends, encounter new foes, and even fall in love across two discs of gaming goodness. Things will get pretty wacky with split personalities and a destiny being revealed that seems to involve destroying God. It’s a head scratcher and probably more than a little pretentious, but damnit, that’s what we expected of JRPGs in the 90s!

 

I’ve played through and completed Xenogears on more than one occasion, and I’m sure every time I’ve engaged it I’ve thought to myself, “Man, it would be really cool if there were action figures for this game.” And for a long time, there were not. With 2018 marking the game’s 20th anniversary though, Square-Enix decided to partner with action figure company Bring Arts to do right by this game for the first time in a long time.

Bring Arts is known for collaborating with Square-Enix on several properties. The company’s figures are usually highly articulated and well-detailed, but also can be rather pricey. Finding places that carry them in the US can be troublesome, with places like GameStop usually only willing to stock a few figures of the most popular franchises. Xenogears, despite being permitted to brand itself as a Greatest Hit back in the day, is not a terribly popular franchise so I have not seen a single figure from the line in a physical store. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any carrying them, but it did mean I didn’t get too excited when I heard toys were coming.

 

Bring Arts first released last year a figure of Fei, as he being the star character that made sense. They then followed with a figure of Elly, one of the other central characters in the show. They look pretty good, but I took a pass because they’re not cheap and also not really what I dreamed of acquiring. Finally, Bring Arts just recently released it’s third figure:  Weltall. When I played Xenogears back in 98 it was Weltall and the other gears designed  by Kunihiko Tanaka that I was thinking of when I wished there were toys based on the property. Weltall is Fei’s gear, and he’s got a nice look to him. He comes across like a hybrid of a Gundam mixed with one of the orbital frames from Eva. It’s mostly blue with glowing red eyes and has wings, or fins, that don’t seem to do anything affixed to its back. Weltall doesn’t use any weapons in the game and instead fights as Fei does with martial arts techniques. It can shoot a Kamehameha like blast, but it doesn’t have guns or a giant sword

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SH Figuarts Vegeta for scale.

The Bring Arts version of Weltall is not to scale with the previous figures. It essentially exists in its own world as the figure itself is only slightly taller than Fei, even though Fei is meant to sit inside the gear and pilot it. It would have been cute if Bring Arts included a tiny Fei with the toy, but sadly the company opted not to. I don’t have Fei, or Elly, so it’s not something that really matters to me, but I suppose if you’re adding Weltall to a Xenogears display it might annoy you a bit.

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Weltall setting Vegeta up for his patented Stunner.

Weltall comes in a nice window box package that’s easy to get into. Once removed, Weltall has a nice feel to it. The figure is all plastic, but has a gun-metal finish to it that makes it at least resemble sheet metal from a distance. It would have been cool if Bring Arts could have included a lot of diecast with this piece, but considering the MSRP is around $90 maybe it’s good that it does not. The figure does feature swappable, diecast, feet which is pretty interesting. It reminds me a bit of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures from SH Figuarts which had diecast shins for balancing. Placing the diecast feet onto the figure allows it to more easily be posed in one-legged positions. Scratching is always a concern with diecast parts so you’ll want to take care when removing them, but they swap on and off easily and the paint application is consistent from plastic to diecast so they don’t look out of place.

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The feet, see if you can tell which is diecast and which is plastic.

Weltall comes with additional hands for posing, including a set of gripping hands. Considering the gear doesn’t use weapons I’m not really sure what good gripping hands are, but they’re included. He has some “chop” hands and energy blast hands, which are permanently bent back. Same for the two fingers pose hands he’s got. The wings, or whatever they are, need to be attached to the figure manually and they snap on easily enough. I was concerned these pieces would throw off the weight of the figure and make it harder to stand, but they’re nice and light and I didn’t have any issues there. I heard some folks were dissatisfied with the paint on the first figures in this series, but I’m happy to report my Weltall looks great.

 

Weltall has a lot of articulation, some of which is rather creative. There are numerous plates on the figures body, some of which you need to swivel a bit before moving a limb. This isn’t a toy you ever want a kid to just grab and start fiddling with as a lot could go wrong. There are some sliding joints in the shoulders and thigh area that help make the limbs clear some of these plates so that the arm or leg can have a full range of motion. The ankles also extend a few millimeters for enhanced positioning as well which is really cool. The extra hands and feet all snapped off and on for me rather easily and this toy in general required little in the way of breaking-in. The only limitation I could find articulation-wise was with the chest and abdomen, which really aren’t able to do much. Since this is a robot, I suppose it doesn’t need a true ab crunch. The sculpt of the torso is also quite nice so at least nothing was sacrificed for the sake of articulation.

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The beauty of diecast feet.

Weltall comes across as a pretty high quality piece of plastic. The likeness is dead-on, and the inclusion of diecast feet was pretty neat. It does mean the figure comes with that hefty price tag though. The MSRP appears to be around $90, but I’ve seen the figure for sale at marks both above and below that figure. Diligence and patience are your friends if you want to get this figure for as little as possible. It’s a niche product, so there’s always the chance Bring Arts ships too many and it ends up on sale, but it almost seems too niche for that. I was fortunate to find a brand new figure on eBay that was an actual auction listing that started at a penny. As result, I ended up only paying around $65 for my figure. I say “only” but that’s obviously in comparison with the asking price as $65 for a six-inch scale action figure is a lot of money. As a result, this isn’t a toy I can recommend to casual fans and collectors. If you’re a diehard Xenogears fan like myself that has always wanted a figure of Weltall then yeah, go ahead and splurge, but otherwise you’re probably better off staying away.

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The figure also comes with a stand, but honestly, it doesn’t need it.

I’ve seen some individuals in the Xenogears fanbase openly speculating on what’s to follow Weltall. I’ve even seen some say they’re waiting for the red version of Weltall from the game, Weltall-Id, but that seems a bit risky to me. Bring Arts has not announced or shown any other figures from Xenogears, and I don’t expect any to follow. Since Weltall-Id could be done fairly easily, I suppose a future variant is possible (maybe a convention exclusive?), but new sculpts seem unlikely to me. This line feels like a rather simple celebration of the game’s age and three figures based on the most recognizable characters/gear feels like a fitting tribute. Would I want more? That’s actually a tough question. I love Weltall, and Weltall II was fine, but also not much different from Weltall 1. Of the other gears, I suppose Andvari was pretty cool and I did enjoy Fenrir, I’m just not sure I liked any of them to want to drop another 80 or so bucks a piece. Most of my favorite designs actually belonged to the bad guys, live Alpha Weltall and Wyvern, and I don’t know if Bring Arts would dare make figures based on those instead of another hero character. I guess we’ll cross that bridge should we get there.

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Blast away.

For now, this Weltall action figure is a pretty neat way to celebrate 20 years of Xenogears. It’s basically exactly what I wanted, just at a price point higher than I would have liked. If more gears come along I’ll certainly take a look, but if this is the only action figure I ever own from Xenogears then that’s okay by me.

 


Ranking the Games of the PlayStation Classic

psx classic gamesWhen the PlayStation Classic was announced a few months ago it was only revealed what 5 of the included 20 games were going to be. It was odd, but considering most places pre-sold out I suppose it didn’t matter. When Nintendo had success with the NES Classic Edition, it meant we were in for more of these devices. Myself and many others tried to predict what would be included on a potential SNES Classic and most people probably came pretty close to nailing the final line-up. Nintendo is heavy with first-party titles and its brand is forever connected with the likes of Mario and Link. With Sony, that first-party recognition isn’t there. During the height of the original PlayStation, Crash Bandicoot was positioned as the company’s mascot, but he wasn’t even owned by Sony. His games were just published by Sony, but the character would eventually come to be owned by Activision. Still, it seemed inconceivable that Sony would pass over Crash, and yet they did! He will not be appearing on the PlayStation Classic as Sony has finally unveiled the remaining 15. I knew predicting the line-up would be more difficult than doing so with the SNES Classic, but apparently I didn’t realize just how hard it would be as I went a putrid 1 for 15 with my predictions.

I suppose if I wanted to give myself bonus points I could dampen that showing by saying I at least hit on two additional franchises. And two of my requested titles (Intelligent Qube and Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo) actually made it, even though I thought it would be a long shot to see them included. There’s no hiding from it though, I whiffed big time and I’ll own that. The actual line-up has likely surprised many and it has some nice surprises and some not-so-nice surprises. It’s a weird line-up, and since the PSX era did have some weird games I suppose that’s appropriate. There are three puzzle games among the 20, no 2D fighters, and only one title each from Konami, and Square-Enix. That means no Mega Man, Lara Croft, or Alucard. Were publishers not willing to “play ball” with Sony and its machine? Or was Sony just not willing to pay more for bigger titles? The Japanese version does have some different titles, including Parasite Eve and SaGa Frontier, but the Japanese market is a lot smaller than the North American one so maybe Sony is trying to maximize profits outside of Japan and is less concerned about the home country.

alucard

There are a lot of contenders for biggest snub, but Alucard might be the biggest.

This is not an optimal line-up of games, but does that make it bad? Lets suss it out and rank these titles starting with the least appetizing:

20. Battle Arena Toshinden – A decent looking launch title, it was quickly overwhelmed by Namco’s Tekken franchise. Most people forget about this franchise, and with good reason. It’s not a good game, and it’s odd to use this one instead of the better sequel, but even that game isn’t great.

destruction derby

Excited to revisit this one?

19. Destruction Derby – This game was a one-trick pony when it was released in the launch window of the PlayStation. It was cool to see cars explode and get smashed-up and it was sort-of perversely fun inflicting damage on other vehicles, but it was all empty calories. No one should be playing this game in 2018.

18. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six – This was one of the most heavily marketed games of its era. I probably saw more commercials for Rainbow Six than I did Final Fantasy VII. It’s okay, but the PSX port was pretty abysmal. Anyone playing Rainbow Six in 1998 probably shouldn’t have been playing it on PSX. Electronic Gaming Monthly even awarded it a dubious 3.8/10.

17. Jumping Flash! – We knew this one was included, and I even argued it had a place given it was a launch title and was just so very “of the era.” That doesn’t mean it’s particularly good and by today’s standards it’s quite ugly. Unlike the games listed before it though, it has a certain curiosity factor going for it that will make it worth a look when the PS Classic drops, but it might not be a game you actually stick with.

16. Cool Boarders 2 – If you like snowboarding and “extreme” sports games, then you’ll probably have this one ranked higher. It’s all right, but most people will probably wonder why it’s here and not Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (it’s the licensing, folks).

twisted metal 1

I probably logged over 100 hours with this game, but I’ve never wanted to replay it after Twisted Metal 2 came out.

15. Twisted Metal – I loved this franchise on PlayStation, well the first two games at least. The first one though has not aged well at all, and even in the moment, I knew I was playing a junky game, but it had a certain fun factor. The sequel though is way better and actually still playable. I considered it the most obvious lock for the mini console even ahead of Metal Gear Solid so the fact that this game is included but the sequel is not blows my mind.

14. Oddworld:  Abe’s Odyssey – I said the PS Classic has three puzzle games, but you could make the case Oddworld is more of a puzzle game than a true platformer. This game was hyped a bunch as being a game that gave the player numerous ways to solve a problem, but it didn’t really play out that way. It was interesting, but hardly great. It’s graphical approach should hold up well enough though.

13. Wild Arms – One of the previously announced titles, I gave my speech on it already. It’s serviceable, and its simple JRPG mechanics mean it will always remain playable. It’s just a bit crazy to think that this machine has only three RPGs when the PSX was an RPG behemoth, and Wild Arms is one of the three.

12. Grand Theft Auto – GTA was a surprise hit for the PC when it was released, and it was somewhat surprising to see it get a PSX port. It was also the first title I was denied an ability to purchase at a GameStop. Like modern GTA titles, it was arguably at its best when it was just played like a sand box causing mayhem. Unlike modern GTA titles, the actual missions and story isn’t that rewarding and the game was really difficult. It was at least a little easier to handle on the PSX than with a keyboard. It should still be fun to screw around with, but might not have much legs with the PS Classic.

Intelligent-Qube

The inclusion of Intelligent Qube is a bit of a surprise. Is it a system-seller? Probably not, but it’s worth a look if you end up getting a PS Classic.

11. Intelligent Qube – This was a surprise inclusion, but a worthwhile one. It’s an interesting puzzle game that’s at least not another brick-falling puzzler. I don’t know how well it’s held up because it’s been many years, but it should be playable and may be a dark horse contender for many folks’ most played title on the Classic.

10. Resident Evil (Director’s Cut) – There’s no denying this title was huge for the PSX, and the Director’s Cut version was superior to the original. It is possibly the worst in the franchise on the PSX though and its controls are not something I look forward to returning to. It took many hours to get a handle on them in 1996 and I’m not sure I still have such skills. Maybe it’s like riding a bike?

9. Syphon Filter – This was basically Sony’s attempt at a first party MGS or Rainbow Six. It was fine for what it was, though I’d prefer a dual shock to play it. It’s going to look ugly, and even Gabe Logan’s running animation looked horrendous in ’99. It might surprise though, and the only reason why I didn’t include it in my prediction was because I didn’t think Sony would release it without dual shock support.

8. Ridge Racer Type 4 – A totally competent racer, but let’s face it, this isn’t the racing game you want. Gran Turismo was the first-party behemoth, but I’m guessing licensing issues made it impossible to include. WipeOut was an alternative racer, but one I’d consider more fun than Ridge Racer. I would have taken Crash Team Racing over this one, honestly, and I’m not sure if I’d even play this more than once on the PS Classic. The racing genre is one that basically improves a lot with better technology, so going back isn’t always fun unless it’s more of an off-beat title. I suspect this still plays well enough though, which is why I’m ranking it this high.

persona

I’m happy to see the original Persona included in this collection, but it’s also not a hard to find game so I wish something like Valkyrie Profile was included instead.

7. Revelations:  Persona – The first game in what is now known simply as the Persona series is the biggest surprise inclusion on the PS Classic. This was not a popular game when it was released, and Persona still has more of a cult franchise vibe than a mainstream one. The first game is not as good as more recent entries with the series really blossoming with Persona 3. It is still playable though, and it’s more strategy-oriented battle system differentiates it from Wild Arms and FFVII. This one is a nice surprise and unlike the original Final Fantasy on the NES Classic, fans who are only familiar with the newer entries might actually enjoy playing the first in the series as opposed to just checking it out for the sake of curiosity.

6. Mr. Driller – The nice thing about puzzle games is that they age well. Mr. Driller is another surprise inclusion. It was well-received in its day, but not really a system mover or anything. It’s fun and charming though and if you like puzzle games with a slight Tetris vibe then you’ll get some mileage out of this one.

5. RaymanRayman was all over the place in the mid-90s. He was so omnipresent that I kind of wrote him off for this system as I never associated him with PlayStation. His game is pretty good though, and its 2D approach should hold up just fine. I never loved Rayman, but I never hated his games either.

4. Metal Gear Solid – I’m not crazy about this list of games, if you haven’t noticed, but I do think it’s pretty top-heavy. The last four are mostly interchangeable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Metal Gear Solid tops many lists such as this one. My reasoning for placing it 4th is because I think we’re missing out on some of the bells and whistles with this version by not having the dual shock support and a memory card full of Konami games. I also think the game hasn’t aged too well and recent entries in the series really helped to smooth out the gameplay experience. It’s still a fantastic game, it’s just not as fantastic as it could be on the PS Classic.

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This is a great choice for inclusion. I have nothing bad to say about Puzzle Fighter.

3. Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo – This is probably my favorite puzzle game. It’s incredibly addicting and the rare puzzler that might be more fun in two-player mode than single-player. It’s got a lot of charm and personality and its sprites should hold up very well. I’m a bit surprised at its inclusion, especially given the omissions of traditional Capcom fighters, but also delighted.

2. Final Fantasy VII – We’ve all probably played it. And even though there’s been backlash towards this title over the years because it’s the most recognizable from the long-running series, that doesn’t mean it’s still not in the conversation for best Final Fantasy game. It’s readily available on other platforms so its inclusion isn’t sexy, but it’s also necessary. If you’ve got about 40 hours, you should give this one some time.

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The visuals may not wow you like they did in 98, but Tekken 3 is still a blast to play.

1. Tekken 3 – And the best game of the PS Classic is Tekken 3. A late era title, it actually holds up quite well in the visuals department and the game is simply one of the best 3D fighters ever made. It has a huge roster of characters, some fun additional modes and characters, and there should be something for everyone in terms of fighting styles. If you don’t like 3D fighters then maybe this won’t win you over, but I spent many hours with this one and I’d actually be excited to run through it again and try to unlock all of the additional characters and modes. Well, maybe not Tekken Force Mode.

 

So that’s it; the PlayStation Classic and its 20 games. Are you going to get one? Did you already pre-order one and are reconsidering that decision? I’m over-all not impressed with these 20 games, the majority of which I don’t need to revisit. Even some of the games that I think are fine I still don’t want to really play in 2018. Why play Twisted Metal when you can easily play Twisted Metal Black? Why play Rayman over the easily acquired (and cheap) Rayman Legends? I wasn’t that excited over this console to begin with, as the nostalgia factor just isn’t quite there for me with the PSX era. If the list had turned out to be something closer to what I predicted I might have been tempted. With this list, though? I’m looking at spending 100 bucks to play Persona, Intelligent Qube, and Mr. Driller as the other games I really enjoy I still own for PlayStation and can play them right now if I want. I have a first-gen PS3 hooked up to my TV right now so nothing is stopping me from popping in Tekken 3 if I wish to play it. I’m not everyone though, so for those who loved the PSX and maybe sold all of their old games I can at least see some appeal, but I still feel like this roster is one big missed opportunity.


Forecasting and Perfecting the PlayStation Classic

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Aww, it’s so adorable!

Sony announced the PlayStation Classic on September 19th and it is set to go on sale December 3rd. Following in Nintendo’s footsteps, the PlayStation Classic is a mini version of the original console with 20 pre-loaded games, a single controller, and HDMI output. It will have support for saves via a virtual memory card as well as numerous display modes to toggle through that will try and preserve the original look of the games or try to smooth them out and update them for today. At $100 MSRP, the PlayStation Classic finds itself priced in-between the SNES Classic and the soon to be released Neo Geo Mini. Making things more interesting, and also frustrating, is that Sony chose to only reveal 5 of the system’s 20 pre-loaded games:  Final Fantasy VII, Jumping Flash, Tekken 3, Ridge Racer Type 4, and Wild Arms. It’s an odd form of marketing, but Sony must feel confident it will have strong pre-sales to hold back that information for the time being. It also likely thinks it will help build excitement for the machine if they drip-feed consumers. Maybe it will be a weekly event to reveal another game or two. There are 10 weeks separating the system’s announcement and release so such a strategy is possible, or they could just come in bunches.

Choosing to withhold information on the included games is likely an annoyance for prospective consumers. I know I personally am not pre-ordering a gaming device in which I don’t even know what games I can play on it will be. It does however create the fun scenario in which people like me can speculate on what will be included and also what should be included. Those are two very different questions as if it were up to me I would load this thing up with RPGs, but I’m sure Sony will want a more balanced lineup. Adding further intrigue is the fact that Sony isn’t the first-party powerhouse that Nintendo is. With the SNES Classic, it was relatively easy to predict what games would be included because so many of them were Nintendo developed titles. Those games were not only among the best the system had, but also cost Nintendo next to nothing to include. With Sony’s machine, they’ll likely be cutting sizable checks to Capcom and Square-Enix with this thing.

Lets rundown the games I think Sony is going to include. Since we already know five of them, that means I need to only come up with 15 for this exercise. This is a prediction, so I’ll also include my opinion on if I think the game should be included, and where not, what I would include instead with the idea being I wouldn’t boot a fighting game to add a strategy one and will aim to stay within the genre. Let’s start with the included games:

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This was expected.

Final Fantasy VII – This is likely the PlayStation’s biggest game, not the best-selling, but in terms of what it meant to the console. This legitimized Sony with the hardcore crowd since Sony was able to pry a successful Nintendo franchise away from The Big N. And even though it’s readily available on Sony’s Eshop and will soon be available on The Switch, Sony basically had to include it here.

Jumping Flash – This is a game that has not aged well. It’s going to be ugly, and may even make you nauseous due to the first-person perspective, but in terms of early launch window games few spring to mind as being of the era than Jumping Flash. It’s a relic, but one forever tied to Sony’s machine. As a legacy game, it feels appropriate to include.

Ridge Racer Type 4 – Squaresoft may have stole the headlines when it announced FFVII would be on a Sony console, but lets not forget how important Namco was for the PSX early on. Namco supported Sony’s machine rather extensively, and one of its signature series was Ridge Racer. Ridge Racer would eventually be over-shadows by the gear-head adored Gran Turismo series, but its arcade approach remained fun and Type 4 was probably the best of the bunch and is rightfully included.

Tekken 3 – Another Namco staple, the first Tekken was a launch window title and a worthy adversary for Sega’s Virtua Fighter series. It proved to be the best of the 3D brawlers on Sony’s machine far surpassing the likes of Battle Arena Toshinden. Tekken 3 was the final Tekken released for the original PlayStation and it represents the pinnacle for the franchise for the era. It was gorgeous for the time and felt like a game that pushed the system beyond what anyone thought it could do. It’s still my favorite entry in the series and it most certainly belongs here.

Wild Arms – The Sony produced RPG had the benefit of arriving before FFVII. While some blame that game for the lack of success enjoyed by Wild Arms, I knew more than one person who purchased this title simply because they couldn’t wait for FFVII. It’s a totally serviceable RPG and it has its share of fans, though it’s never been a favorite of mine. On one hand, it does represent the early era of PSX role-playing games, but I would not have included it.  Suggested replacementBlood Omen:  Legacy of Kain – a top-down action RPG, Blood Omen was the start of a successful Sony franchise for Kain and eventually Raziel. It had a lot of style, and as a fellow 1996 title and pseudo RPG it would be a suitable replacement. If something could be done about the horrendous load times in bringing it to the system then all the better. It’s possible the sequel, Soul Reaver, will be among the other 15 and if that is the case then I would not include this one.

And now for the predictions! I’m ordering them from most likely to least, and it should be noted, this is entirely subjective for the most part though I’m avoiding any game that was intended to be played with the Dual Shock controller (like Ape Escape), with one noted exception.

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Twisted Metal was arguably Sony’s premiere franchise in the 90s.

Twisted Metal 2:  World Tour – The most successful Sony first-party franchise during the PSX era was probably Twisted Metal, and that franchise’s best game was easily Twisted Metal 2:  World Tour. It took everything that made the first a surprise hit and improved upon it. Better presentation, better controls, a huge roster, and new gameplay additions made this one a blast to play. It’s probably pretty ugly by today’s standards, but still playable and likely still infectious.

Metal Gear Solid – FFVII was the signature third-party game, and franchise, for the PlayStation’s early days, but it feels like it was supplanted some-what by Metal Gear Solid. MGS revolutionized what could be done from a cinematic perspective and its attention to detail was something seldom seen in gaming. It was an instant masterpiece, and also the game that will most suffer by the lack of Dual Shock support. If It wasn’t so important to the legacy of the PlayStation I’d say hold off for an eventual Dual Shock version of the PlayStation Classic.

Final Fantasy Tactics – Another game that is readily available, but also one synonymous with the PlayStation. Final Fantasy Tactics took the guts of Tactics Ogre and gave it a new coat of paint. It’s also a bit more accessible, but just as serious about its story. FFT wasn’t what folks who had just played FFVII were expecting, so it got kind of lost in the shuffle, but has since been more appreciated and is routinely cited as one of the best RPGs ever released. It would feel weird to not include it.

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I’ve never been a Crash guy, but I won’t deny him his rightful place.

Crash Bandicoot 2:  Cortex Strikes Back – Crash was conceived as the original PlayStation mascot meant to oppose Mario and Sonic. It didn’t really work out that way, since Sony didn’t even own the character, but for awhile he was utilized that way. Arguably his best contribution to that era were the commercials (“Hey, plumber boy!”), but the games were pretty good in their own right. Not really my cup of tea, it would be hard though to deny Crash a spot on the PlayStation Classic and most agree that his second outing was superior to the first. They would also probably argue the third was even better, but I’m guessing Sony is placing an emphasis on earlier games which is why they may opt for this one over Warped.

Resident Evil 2 – Really, the only thing that makes me thing think Resident Evil 2 might not be included is the fact that Capcom is working on a remake as we speak. For that reason, it may prefer to include the original or even the less celebrated third entry. Everyone likely agrees that RE2 was the superior title, so in the interest of keeping things simple, I say Capcom relents and lets Sony have it.

Castlevania:  Symphony of the Night – We’ve long since past the era when Symphony of the Night was an under-appreciated classic. Famously released to a hostile public because it dared to be 2D, most have come to realize how silly a notion it was to declare 2D gaming obsolete and have embraced SoTN as one of the very best games in the long-running franchise. And those that didn’t realize it at the time certainly did when Castlevania 64 was released.

Street Fighter Alpha 3 – Most associate the 16 bit era with the height of the fighting genre, but it was still alive and well come the 32/64 bit era as well. PlayStation was not known for its excellence with 2D fighters, leaving that to Saturn and eventually Dreamcast, but Street Fighter Alpha was an exception. And of the games released in that series for the system, Alpha 3 was the best.

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I had a lot of good times with Wipeout.

Wipeout XL – Perhaps an aggressive ranking, but Wipeout felt like an important franchise during the early days of the PlayStation. The Psygnosis developed futuristic racer could have been mistaken as an F-Zero clone, but the physics and course design made it so much more. XL was the pinnacle for the series, and assuming Sony can work out the licensing issues, I expect it will be included.

Tomb Raider – Lara Croft’s humble beginnings were as an ugly, pointy-breasted, mess of polygons that I’m not sure people even in the moment felt looked particularly good. She was tough to control, but wasn’t a tank like Jill Valentine, and her adventure was pretty damn difficult. She did move onto other consoles, but Tomb Raider always felt like a Sony franchise and it’s likely viewed as important to the console, even though I do not want to revisit it. Suggested ReplacementParasite Eve – not exactly a one for one, but the shooter/RPG hybrid was quite interesting for its era, and as a franchise that never made it off of the PSX, it would be nice to see it here. The sequel is better, but may be hard to get into without knowing what happened in the first.

The Legend of Dragoon – Seeing how successful Final Fantasy was on its machine, Sony decided to get into the RPG business with The Legend of Dragoon. Seemingly thinking RPG fans enjoyed length over anything else, TLoD was gigantic and is probably the longest RPG on the system. It also looked great, and its battle system was okay. Aside from that, it’s not very good, but since Sony produced this one it won’t cost them much to include it and they probably view it as a signature title for the system. Suggested ReplacementValkyrie Profile – Oh boy, does this system not lack for RPGs. You could easily fill the console with 20 RPGs and not run out of quality software. Xenogears is my favorite, and it has an outside shot of being included, but a game that’s also good and brutally expensive is Valkyrie Profile. It would be great to see Sony use the PlayStation Classic as a means of delivering hard to find games to the consumer, but I’d be shocked if they included this one. It would probably cause me to buy one though, since getting a PlayStation Classic is way cheaper than buying this one second-hand.

Gran Turismo 2 – Assuming Sony can sort out the licensing issues, this one feels like a no brainer. Gran Turismo is one of Sony’s premiere franchises, and even though it’s faded some, it’s still remembered quite fondly. And given that its sim approach makes it way different from Ridge Racer, there’s room for it on the Classic as well. Though for me personally, it’s also a game I wouldn’t play.  Suggested ReplacementCrash Team Racing – so it’s not exactly a sim, but I struggled to come up with a more appropriate replacement. CTR was stealthily the second best kart racer of the era, behind Diddy Kong Racing and ahead of Mario Kart 64. Yes, you read that correctly. MK64 is the most overrated game in that long running series and doesn’t hold up, but CTR is frantic, fast, and fun. The only problem is you’d pretty much need to get a second controller.

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X found a home on Sony’s console, where Zero was allowed to flourish alongside him.

Mega Man X4 – Capcom is not shy about loaning out Mega Man for compilations, and since he’s featured on both the NES Classic and SNES Classic it stands to reason he’ll appear here. The X series was the most prominent on Sony’s console, and X4 was the best of the Mega Man games released for the system which also included the underrated Mega Man 8. And yet, it doesn’t feel like the most “PlayStation” of the Mega Man games…Suggested ReplacementMega Man LegendsMega Man X4 was just released as part of a compilation of X games. It’s easy to come by. What’s less easy is Mega Man’s first foray into RPGs on the PlayStation, Mega Man Legends. I won’t argue it’s better than Mega Man X4, because it’s not. It just feels like a more appropriate release. The only thing that would change my mind is if Nintendo is already developing a Nintendo 64 Classic and intends to include the port, Mega Man 64, on its machine. If that’s the case, then stick with X4.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 – The Tony Hawk series was a huge hit on Sony’s machine, and the second game was the most well-received. It was basically the first and only skateboarding sim worth playing, and I knew many people obsessed with this game that weren’t even that into skating (but the ones who were into skating were even more obsessed). There are challenges in bringing it to the PlayStation Classic, but I would bet Sony finds a way to get it done. Suggested ReplacementBushido Blade – Confession time! I never liked the Tony Hawk games. Sorry! And since there is no skateboarding sim worth replacing it with, I’ll go with the sword-fighting sim from Squaresoft. Bushido Blade was a really neat take on fighting games as it aimed for more realism. Not total realism, just more. And it primarily did that via one-hit kills. If a guy gets slashed across the gut with a sword that shouldn’t merely take away some of his health bar, it’s going to incapacitate him. As a result, fights could be really brief, but most actually turned into endurance matches. They were tense, and in order to succeed you had to get your opponent to fall for a feint or just get careless leaving them open for an attack. It’s a toss-up which version is superior, this or the sequel, but most seem to lean towards the first since it had more weapon options.

Suikoden IISuikoden II has become such a popular game long after the PlayStation era came to a close that I think it’s actually likely that Sony includes it. It’s on their web store for Vita/PS3/PSP and it was presented as a pretty big deal when it first showed up. Sony probably has a solid relationship with Konami and won’t have too much trouble bringing this one to the PlayStation Classic, but it remains possible that Sony thinks this would be too many RPGs and leaves it out. That would be a very bad move.

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Expect PaRappa to appear on the PS Classic, but don’t expect him to look this smooth.

PaRappa The Rapper – Sony’s flagship rhythm game was pretty well-received. It also helped to popularize what came to be known as cell-shaded graphics. It was recently remastered and re-released, which is why I’ve placed it at the bottom of this list. It’s possible Sony doesn’t want to eat into that at all, plus it’s going to look pretty terrible in comparison, but it’s popular enough to merit inclusion. Had it not been for that re-release I’d have pushed this into the top 10 easily. Suggested ReplacementTobal 2 – I don’t really care for PaRappa, or rhythm games in general, so for my last slot how about something exciting? The SNES Classic certainly benefitted from including the previously unavailable Star Fox 2, and if Sony wants to drum-up some similar excitement announcing Tobal 2 for a North American release would be one way to do so. I believe it was prepped for one, but abruptly cancelled as the era was winding down and the first game did not sell particularly well. As a result, some of the localization may still exist, and if it doesn’t then that might not be much of a hurdle anyway as fighting games usually don’t require much, so how about it, Sony? Give us some sizzle!

 

Well, that’s it! What do you think? Is this something you would buy? Think I pretty much nailed it or did I miss something obvious? Surely, they’ll try and get a Spyro game onto this thing, but I’m not sure at what game’s expense (alright, probably Suikoden II, but maybe Sony will do the right thing and not include The Legend of Dragoon)? The PlayStation was perhaps my most favorite system as it came around when I was most interested in gaming. I was in my early teens so I was able to obsess over gaming without the distraction of what would follow in high school. Picking just 20 games just highlights how many games have to be excluded, so let’s go out with some honorable mentions. For the most part, these are games I would definitely include on my personal PlayStation Classic, but acknowledge Sony is unlikely to do so for one reason or another:

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Oh please! Oh please! Oh please!

Xenogears, Final Fantasy IX, Chrono Cross, Tomba!, Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, Vagrant Story, Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, Mega Man 8, Mega Man X5, Rogue Trip, Street Fighter EX Plus a, Brave Fencer Musashi, Colony Wars, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Front Mission 3, Spider-Man, Alundra, WWF Smackdown 2: Know Your Role, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, IQ: Intelligent Qube


The Mini Console Wars are Upon Us

ps classicPlug and Play games have been around for several years now. They’re those cheap little Atari-styled joysticks you see at electronics stores that when plugged into a television allow one to play games like Pac-Man and Asteroid. They’re novelty machines and an inexpensive way to say to someone “Remember this?” I don’t know how successful they’ve ultimately been, but they’ve persisted and may be responsible for bigger publishers to look at and say there’s more here than meets the eye.

Companies love money, and they love finding ways to make money off of things that require little or no capital. When Nintendo launched its Virtual Console service with the Wii it was a simple and inexpensive way for the company to monetize outdated games. Previously, Nintendo’s path to doing so was via its portable line which was always a generation behind the main consoles in terms of power. Porting a SNES game to Gameboy Advance was cheap, and gamers liked playing games they enjoyed roughly five years past on-the-go. It was a novelty, but a good game is a good game. When consoles finally reached the point where DVD and Blu Ray mediums meant storage was no longer an issue, retro compilations came into fashion. Few sold big numbers, but they didn’t have to since the cost to emulate the software was fairly cheap.

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The start of the retro craze?

All of that changed when Nintendo unveiled its NES Classic Edition System in 2016. The tiny device was immediately attractive to older gamers because it was so cute and tastefully done. Pre-packaged with 30 “classic” games at an attractive low MSRP of $60 helped to make it the hottest item of the 2016 holiday season. Nintendo famously could not meet demand, and it’s taken the company nearly two years to finally make the system readily available. Since then it’s also released the SNES Classic Edition. That came with a second controller and 21 games for the higher MSRP of $80, roughly approximating the price Nintendo has always placed on its NES games relative to its SNES games via the now dead Virtual Console service.

Since Nintendo had such unbelievable success with its products, it’s no surprise then that other companies have followed suit. Sega has licensed its Genesis hardware for similar mini consoles with the added feature that most have contained an actual cartridge slot to play physical Genesis software. The results have been less well received though as the Genesis knock-offs have been rather clunky. Prior to that, Sega was arguably ahead of the curve by licensing its product for portable systems. They too were pretty clunky though and I’ve never had someone actually recommend one to me.

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SNK and Tommo tried to make the Neo Geo affordable and practical, but it didn’t work out.

The newest entrant to hit retail is actually an older one as well. SNK too was ahead of the curve with its Neo Geo X released in 2012. The NGX was basically the precursor to the Nintendo Switch. It was a handheld console with 20 pre-loaded Neo Geo games and room for expansion via game cards. It came with a dock that resembled the Neo Geo AES console and once placed inside that dock the games could be played on a television with the included AES style joystick. It was an ambitious, and expensive (but what Neo Geo item isn’t?), toy manufactured by Tommo as opposed to being a true SNK console. The hardcore fanbase didn’t have pleasant things to say. From stretched visuals to input lag, the NGX was more of a novelty than a true way to experience the Neo Geo. After all, most of the system’s best games are available across many consoles now and emulated quite well. SNK was so dissatisfied with the machine that it eventually ordered Tommo to cease and desist production less than a year after release.

The NGX may have been a failure, but it didn’t discourage SNK from trying something similar again. Likely influenced by Nintendo, the Neo Geo Mini is now a thing set for release next month. Unlike the Nintendo machines, the SNK Mini is both a portable and a dedicated home console machine. It resembles a little arcade cabinet and comes with 40 games pre-installed. It looks like it will be rather clunky and cramped when enjoyed as a portable, but it supports standard Neo Geo controller pads so it likely will get the job done when plugged into a television. Like all things Neo Geo, it’s pricier than the competition and will set you back 90-110 dollars, but SNK has an extremely loyal fanbase that will likely guarantee this thing is a sell-out.

neo geo mini

The Neo Geo Mini certainly scores points for cuteness, but how functional it is seems suspect when not plugged into a television.

And of course, the impetus for this post, is the just announced PlayStation Classic. Unlike the Neo Geo Mini, the PlayStation Classic looks to be a straight-up knock-off of Nintendo’s products. A mini PlayStation with 20 pre-loaded games and a single controller for $100, it’s a fairly no-frills duplicate. Sony has only announced 5 of the 20 games, and they’re a pretty representative snapshot of what the original PSX offered:  Final Fantasy VII, Jumping Flash, Wild Arms, Tekken 3, and Ridge Racer Type 4. Sony made the decision to package the system with one standard PlayStation controller, which means no analog. The choice to do so is being spun as a way to celebrate the original release of the console nearly 25 years ago, but I’m guessing it was really done for cost reasons. The machine also resembles the original launch model right down to the additional port on the system’s rear (it’s guarded by a removable plastic tab and I don’t know if its present for aesthetic reasons on the PS Mini or if it’s hiding an additional function).

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Sega has made half-hearted attempts to duplicate Nintendo’s success, but the results have been subpar at best.

The PlayStation was the highest selling console of the 1990s so there’s likely a lot of gamers who hold the system in high regard. Even so, there are factors working against Sony with the PlayStation Classic. For one, Sony has actually been very good at making its classic games easily available. The PlayStation 4 may have been left in the dust in some respects, but both the Vita and PS3 can download and emulate almost all of the biggest games released for the original PSX. They’re not free, but they’re also not prohibitively expensive and the cost varies from publisher to publisher. Likely Sony’s biggest ally in those days was Squaresoft, now Square-Enix, which has made almost all of its PSX games available in Sony’s Eshop. And if you’re one of the few who (like me) purchased a PlayStation TV then you have yet another avenue for experiencing these games. Even games like the ultra rare Suikoden II can be played rather effortlessly these days.

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The PlaySation Classic is about what you would expect.

The other issue Sony is going to run into is its price point and lack of analog support. Some classic PSX games made full use of the Dual Shock controller including Metal Gear Solid and Ape Escape. Other games were retro-fitted to utilize the new controller and made better, like Resident Evil 2. Since the console does utilize USB for its controller input it’s possible it will support the Dual Shock 3 and 4 as an input method, but it stinks to not just include that out of the box. And of course, the $100 price point is another tough sell. It follows the path Nintendo laid out with its retro machines of adding another 20 dollars for each successive console generation, but it does feel like there is a limit for what people are willing to spend. Gaming enthusiasts will still have interest, but will Sony be able to successfully attract that casual crowd that really drove sales for the Nintendo units? Considering the Sony brand isn’t as famous as Nintendo’s, despite the obvious success of the PlayStation consoles, it would appear that this unit is destined to be less popular. And on the business side of things, Sony just doesn’t have as many firs-party titles as Nintendo making the licensing more expensive. That’s likely reflected in the price-point, but it’s also possible that Sony also just isn’t going to pull in the same profit per unit that Nintendo can manage.

Revealing only 5 of the included 20 games from the start feels like a gamble on Sony’s part. Does the company think that the excitement of the initial announcement will be enough to drive pre-orders into near sell-out numbers? It’s possible, but it also feels like there’s a lack of confidence in the software. A lot of Sony’s biggest games come with obvious licensing hurdles. Gran Turismo boasted hundreds of actual vehicles. Tony Hark’s Pro Skater contains the likeness of dozens of unaffiliated skaters as well as sponsorships as well. Even Jet Moto and Wipeout featured in-game sponsorships or licensed music. It’s unlikely these licensing agreements factored in new retail releases down the road and license holders need to be re-engaged in some cases in order to include them. All of these things cost Sony money and might discourage the company from including some of the system’s most memorable games.

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The choice of controller may be a hindrance, but we’ll see.

Just like the remaining 15 games, it also remains to be seen how Sony views its newly launched Mini Console business. Does the world really need a PS2 Mini at this point? I’d argue no, but I also would not be surprised to see Sony try. They may wait to see if Sega or Nintendo jumps into that generation first though before dipping their toe into those waters. It’s also possible Sony sees this as the first of multiple mini PlayStation devices. Perhaps a second could mimic the redesign of the PSOne and include analog support. Maybe this one due out in December is to be expandable or new versions could arrive that include a different variety of games. We don’t yet know if there will be regional differences with these consoles as there were with the Nintendo ones too. And lastly, we don’t know how well this system will be at emulating these games. While many hold up from a fun-factor perspective, visually they have not aged well and may look troublesome on modern televisions. Sony at least has experience with the PlayStation TV (I bet Sony really kicks themselves now for not designing the PS TV to resemble a mini PlayStation) so we know they can make a quality plug and play device at a modest price point, but we also don’t know if we can expect the same level of quality from this device. All of these questions, and the fact that I still own most of my favorite PSX era games in a physical form, has me less than enthused about the PlayStation Classic. I’m not pre-ordering it, but I’m also not ruling out a purchase somewhere down the road. It is fun to think about though, and it certainly reaffirms the notion that we’re not through yet with mini consoles.


Mega Man 8

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Mega Man 8 (1996/1997)

Mega Man 8 is perhaps the most divisive game in the history of the Blue Bomber. The first developed without series creator Tokuro Fujiwara, it was the only mainline Mega Man game released during the 32 bit era, and for a long time, was the last to be made with current generation technology, even though it didn’t seem like that at the time. After the release of Mega Man 8, the series essentially disappeared in favor of the many Mega Man spin-off franchises such as X, Legends, Battle Network, and others. When Capcom finally reconvened to create a Mega Man 9 it opted to pretend as if this game (and to some extent its predecessor Mega Man 7) never existed going back to a visual style akin to the original NES games and a gameplay style that went even further back. Capcom would stay with that look for Mega Man 10, but finally announced in 2017 that a new Mega Man game is coming and it won’t feature illusory 8-bit images.

It’s interesting that the game has become so maligned over the years, since at the time Mega Man 8 was supposed to be a celebration of Mega Man and the impact he had made in the world of gaming. Coinciding with the 10 year anniversary of the first game, Mega Man 8 stayed true to the series roots by sticking with 2D gameplay when the whole world was demanding 3D. Sony Computer Entertainment of America (SCEA) initially wanted nothing to do with the game because of its use of 2D visuals. Wanting to highlight the processing power of the PlayStation, SCEA nearly prevented the release of the game in North America, but eventually relented when Capcom agreed to dress-up the packaging. Since it was also to be released on the Saturn, SCEA wanted exclusive content and thus received a little booklet to be included with each copy of the game recounting the legacy of Mega Man. Maybe out of spite, Capcom would introduce better, exclusive, content on the Saturn with optional hidden bosses.

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There’s a whole bunch of new enemies for Mega Man to vanquish.

Mega Man 8 largely follows the formula of the games that came before it building off of Mega Man 7. So unlike more recent entries in the series, this one still retains the charge shot and slide maneuver as well as the bolts currency which can be used between levels to purchase upgrades for Mega Man. Dr. Wiley is the main antagonist once again and Bass and Treble return from 7 to make Mega Man’s life more difficult. The plot isn’t of much importance, suffice to say that Wiley is up to no good and has created 8 robot masters that Mega Man has to get by before he can ultimately take on the mad scientist. A new character is introduced, Duo, who’s from outer space and brings with him some kind of weird energy that Wiley wants to make use of. He starts off as an ambiguous character, but will eventually become an ally when he “senses justice” within in Mega Man, or some nonsense.

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Most of the levels have an appealing design that serves its robot master well.

What you need to know as a gamer is that Mega Man has roughly 12 new stages to topple. After a simple introductory level, four additional stages are open to Mega Man and each features a robot master to take down. Following their defeat, an intermission stage is unlocked before the final 4 robot masters are available and then eventually the multi-stage Wiley Tower. Splitting the 8 robot masters into two separate groupings of four does make it a little easier to determine an order to tackle them in. As is the case with virtually every Mega Man game, defeating a robot master earns Mega Man a new weapon and each one is a natural weakness for another robot master (Wiley should really avoid doing that when creating these things). There is an added challenge in introducing the robots this way as the player needs to figure out which robot to tackle first – twice! There’s no overlap in terms of weaknesses between the two groups of four, so the first boss you fight and the fifth will basically necessitate relying on the Mega Buster to topple. If you want my advice, I suggest starting with Grenade Man and Aqua Man, respectively. Although I did have this game before I had internet access and a boss order available to me so I have taken down more than just those two with the Mega Buster.

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Mega Man 8 is gorgeously animated, but few appreciated it in 1996 since it wasn’t 3D.

Scattered throughout the stages are bolts. There is a finite amount of them in the game and they serve as currency for Mega Man to purchase upgrades. Since you’re limited by the amount of bolts in the game, this also means you’ll be unable to purchase all of the upgrades in a single save file. Some of the upgrades available to Mega Man include a fast charge attachment, a shield that will prevent knock-backs, a laser shot, and a spread gun, among others. Basically all of them are useful to some degree, though I’d argue the most essential is probably the quick-charge. One annoyance, the ability to exit already completed stages must be purchased, so if you want to go back for bolts that you missed (and you will, since some require a weapon acquired later to access) you will have to either waste bolts on this feature or play through the entire level again.

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There’s some auto-scrolling segments to break-up the gameplay. This Rush segment works well, but don’t ask me about the snowboarding one.

The stages feature a solid mix of run and gun and platforming gameplay, as well as a couple of auto-scrolling events. The levels offer a rather average level of difficulty for a Mega Man game sitting this one squarely in the middle of the pack if arranged accordingly, though perhaps closer to the easy side. Continues are unlimited, so the game is forgiving in that regard, but the checkpoints are spread out enough that having to use a continue does hurt a bit. There are no E Tanks in this game, which might explain why it’s a touch on the easier side, but there is a Rush attachment that can be used once per stage that summons Mega Man’s trusty robotic canine who will drop power-ups as he flies back and forth. It’s not as seamless as an E Tank since Mega Man still has to chase down the power-ups and there’s no guarantee that Rush will drop exactly what you want. This makes him a bit unreliable during the chaotic boss encounters in the game and he’s also basically useless if you’re in an area where Mega Man is limited by where he can stand (auto-scrolling segments, spike pits, etc.).

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In what was apparently common for Capcom at the time, fan input was sought for boss designs. Some of the original fan-submitted works appear in the credits.

Of the main stages available, none are probably memorable enough to supplant a Quick Man or Flash Man stage, but they mostly offer plenty of variety and avoid the pitfalls of tedium. Tengu Man’s stage features a pervasive gust of wind that extends Mega Man’s jumps when moving with it, but also hinders his ability to backtrack. This stage also features one of the auto-scrolling portions where Mega Man hops aboard Rush and uses him like a jet-board as he soars through the air. During these segments Mega Man can also summon his lesser allies like Auto and Beat to assist him in taking out the various enemies he encounters. Astro Man’s stage features some maze-like portions as well as a frantic escape from a sinking tower. Sword Man’s stage is broken up into sections that can be tackled in any order, sort of like the boss gauntlet that appears towards the end of every Wiley Castle. Some levels also feature a mid boss and defeating that boss unlocks a new Rush ability (4 in total) that include the health power-up, as well as a few other things that aren’t really essential but can be useful.

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Mega Man has finally learned how to swim, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Some levels, on the other hand, don’t go over as well. Frost Man’s stage features the snowboarding auto-scrolling bit and it is not enjoyable. The input feels laggy, and the developers apparently noticed this as well because they inserted audio prompts commanding the player to “Jump! Jump!” or “Slide! Slide!” These segments are mercifully short, but also short on fun and it’s a shame they recognized the need for the cues but not the need to just cut them entirely. Aqua Man’s stage also features scenarios completely submerged in water. Mega Man has apparently received a software upgrade that taught him how to swim, as he no longer just jumps around slowly in water. Swimming basically works the same way in Mega Man 8 as it does in Super Mario Bros, which is to say it’s not good. Mega Man is also a lot longer relative to Mario so it’s not easy to maneuver him around enemies. You’re better off to just plow through those segments and hope for the best.

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Mega Man’s “sister” Roll runs Dr. Light’s shop which you can visit to purchase upgrades for Mega Man after acquiring enough bolts.

The bosses themselves are all fine. They’re fully voiced, like Mega Man (more on that later), and it’s kind of funny to hear them taunt Mega Man before and during confrontations. There’s nothing particularly logical about who is weak to who, unless you know more about the robot than the game presents. For example, Sword Man does have a fire element associated with him that’s not apparent just by looking at him and Aqua Man’s Aqua Bubble is his weakness. There’s also no weapon on par with the Metal Blade that makes life easier across the board, though the multi-hit Grenade Bomb is pretty good and seems to have the most uses. Other weapons are more utilitarian. The Tornado Hold can be used to levitate Mega Man or hit enemies that are high in the air and the Thunder Claw can be utilized like Bionic Commando’s claw at certain points in the game (another benefit to splitting the bosses in groups of four means levels can be designed to utilize certain weapons because it’s guaranteed the player will have it). There’s also a 9th weapon that Mega Man receives in the opening stage:  the Mega Ball. It’s basically a soccer ball and pressing the fire button causes Mega Man to drop the ball. He can then dribble it if he likes or even jump on it for a small height boost on his subsequent jump, or press the fire button again to kick it. The ball can ricochet off walls, but it’s mostly too unwieldy to properly utilize. Only one boss requires its use. Two other very useful weapons include the Homing Sniper, which can fire up to three homing missiles, and the Astro Crush which rains down death on the entire screen. As a result, it has a very limited amount of uses.

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This is the only boss who requires the use of the Mega Ball, and as a result, he’s pretty annoying.

Where things start to fall apart with Mega Man 8 is after the eight robot masters have been vanquished. Wiley’s various stages are lackluster and downright annoying at times. The first opens with another snowboard segment, this one far more annoying and longer than the ones from Frost Man’s stage. Worse yet, it ends with the only boss fight that requires use of the Mega Ball, and as a result, it’s pretty tricky. If you have to resort to a continue you’ll be stuck playing through that snowboarding segment once again and you’ll want to snap the disc in half. After that is another Rush auto-scrolling segment that uses the scrolling gimmick to kill you if you’re not paying attention (and it’s mean enough that you probably will die at least once when you hit that part for the first time) and concludes with the worst boss fight in the game. It’s long and tedious, but as a plus it’s not particularly difficult so hopefully you take it out on the first try. The third level is better and finally presents what feels like a fair challenge plus a dual boss fight when you take on the Bass + Treble machination and then the Green Devil, or whatever it’s called. The Devil boss is probably the easiest one of them all, but if you don’t know its weakness it is considerably more difficult.

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Seriously, fuck this shit.

Finally, there’s Wiley, and unfortunately he kind of sucks too. He’s very similar to his Mega Man 2 version in which you take on his tank thing before fighting him in a floating capsule/bubble contraption. The tank is not terribly difficult, but it’s also not easy, and given the lack of E Tanks there is a bit of added challenge. The capsule part is a bit boring because he just doesn’t take much damage. He doesn’t appear to be weak to anything, so you just have to make sure you outlast him.

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The anime cut scenes by and large look great considering they’re stored on CD ROM, but the voice acting just kills it.

Since this was the 10 year celebration for Mega Man, Capcom decided to dress things up with some anime cut scenes! Xebec was contracted to do the scenes and they actually did a really nice job considering these are forever trapped on a PlayStation disc. Since the total run-time for all of the sequences put together is probably only 10-12 minutes, they could afford to take their time and put a lot of effort into making them look good. Unfortunately, the same degree of care was not put forth into the voice acting when it came time to localize the game for North America. I don’t know if the Japanese voice acting was equally terrible, but the English version is hilariously bad. It’s the most infamous part of the game and what people think of first when they think of Mega Man 8. Mega Man sounds like an adolescent high-voiced girl while apparently no one realized that the characters Bass and Treble refer to music and not fish. Dr. Light is especially bad and sounds like a bumbling old fool who refers to Dr. Wiley as “Dr. Wow-ee” while the voice actor for newcomer Duo just sounds like he would rather be anywhere than in a studio voicing this character.

The voice acting is a real shame because outside of that the production values are pretty great. While few wanted 2D games in 1996, no one could argue that Mega Man 8 wasn’t attractive to look at. It’s hand-drawn visuals have aged way better than basically anything else on the PlayStation. Mega Man is the right size in relation to the screen and is lovingly animated. Many of the generic enemies are brimming with personality and the bosses, in particular Frost Man and Sword Man, are also a lot of fun to look at. The music is solid as well, and while most are probably nostalgic for that 8 bit sound I doubt few would suggest the soundtrack is poor. And while the voice acting during the anime bits is atrocious, it does succeed in adding some personality to those bosses and its mostly welcome in that space.

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An assortment of mini bosses keeps things interesting and provide a vehicle for awarding Mega Man with even more power-ups.

Mega Man 8 performed rather well at retail when it was released, but reviewers were far more mixed. Incidentally, what it was maligned most for (its visuals) is what it’s most likely celebrated most for today. There was an undercurrent of backlash from some outlets because of its simplified look and there was also some Mega Man fatigue at the time. After all, this wasn’t just the 8th Mega Man game. It also followed three Mega Man X titles and some handheld ones as well. That’s a lot of Mega Man games in the span of 10 years so reviewers and gamers could be forgiven if they weren’t as excited for a proper Mega Man title in 1996 as maybe they would be today. Opinions are still divided on this one though. As recently as 2010, IGN considered it the worst of the mainline Mega Man titles. More recently, Retronaut’s Jeremy Parish ranked it as high as 5th among all of the Mega Man games (did you know there’s 20 total as of this writing?) which is probably the most praise I’ve ever seen given to the game. Perhaps not surprisingly, I tend to fall somewhere in between those two extremes. It certainly is not the worst of the Mega Man games, but Mega Man 2 and 3 are probably superior, at least. I definitely would rather play this one than Mega Man 7, though I’m less sure when it comes to other games. I’m not an expert Mega Man gamer and I never touched the ultra hard Mega Man 10 because it sounded like something I wouldn’t enjoy. When I picked this game up in 1997 as a birthday present I had some fun with it and returning to it in 2018 was by no means a bad experience. If you like Mega Man, but have never played this one and have only heard bad things then I’d suggest giving it a shot. It’s not hard to come by thanks to the compilations put out by Capcom nor is it prohibitively expensive if you want an original PlayStation version (if you want it for Saturn you will have to pay a lot, though) so you only have yourself to blame if you haven’t played it.


DuckTales: Remastered

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DuckTales: Remastered (2013)

If you read yesterday’s post about DuckTales for the NES, you may have thought, “Wow, I’m surprised he didn’t mention anything about the re-make that came out in 2013.” Well, that’s because I was saving it for its own post! DuckTales: Remastered is a complete remake of the original NES game for Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii U. Initially a digital only release, DuckTales: Remastered would receive a tangible release as well, and for a game the started as a budget-friendly digital title, I can think of few others that received as much attention and fanfare as DuckTales: Remastered.

Capcom debuted the game at E3 with a memorable video hyping it up before indulging the audience in a sing-along of the memorable theme song from the show. The release of the game coincided with the 25th anniversary of the NES original, and it was a worthy title to revisit based on the fact that the original is still a ton of fun to play. Naturally, remaking a game many consider to be a classic is a tall task, but with such simple play mechanics, how could Capcom go wrong?

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Transylvania got a lot scarier over the last 25 years.

DuckTales the game is largely unchanged at its core. The player still controls Scrooge who jumps and pogos his way through various levels (now six) in an effort to accumulate more wealth for himself and eventually to recover his lucky dime. What is changed are the production values. Modern game consoles can obviously handle quite a bit more, and this being tied to a Disney property, means a remake needs to meet the expectations and standards of The Walt Disney Company.

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A comparison of the sprites from the NES original and the Remastered version.

For the first time ever, a Disney Afternoon property can now basically look just like it does in game form as it did on television. The game is still a 2D side-scroller, but now the sprites for the characters are lovingly hand-drawn in great detail in bright, expressive colors. Scrooge will mostly sport a happy expression, but when he encounters the Beagle Boys or Magicka DeSpell he’ll scrunch his face up into a frown. The enemies too feature changing facial expressions, and not just the boss characters, but even lowly spiders and the like. The levels really come to life as the difference in climate is really accentuated by the enhanced presentation. All in all, DuckTales: Remastered is a beautiful game to behold and one of my very favorites from a visual point of view.

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Another comparison shot to the original.

The enhanced fidelity of the game’s graphics are not the only aspect of the presentation to be enhanced with better technology. The audio is also greatly expanded upon featuring full-voiced characters with actors from the show as well as remastered music. Alan Young, in what is basically his swan-song as Scrooge, does a great job of voicing the greedy old duck and shows that time hasn’t taken much away from his vocal chords. Russi Taylor is on-hand to reprise her role as the nephews, Huey, Duey, and Louie, while  Terry McGovern returns as Launchpad. The wonderful June Foray was even brought back to voice Magicka DeSpell, making this a reunion of sorts for the cast. This seems all the more special since the new version of the cartoon set to launch this summer will feature an all new cast for these characters.

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I love how cold this cavern looks.

The downside to all of these resources is the need to make liberal use of them. DuckTales for the NES was a quick and fun to play title that would have worked even without the DuckTales license. For Remastered, a lot of cut scenes and cinematics were tacked onto the experience, not just in between levels, but even during them. They can be skipped, but even so they really break up the experience of playing the game and not in a welcomed way. Worse, I feel kind of guilty skipping over any line from Young and the other cast-mates, but it can get old hearing the same lines over and over if you’re forced to retry a stage. The game has also been lengthened quite a bit, not just with these scenes, but with a new level and longer boss encounters. Some of the boss fights are fine in their new form, while others do drag. I particularly hated the very final encounter with Magicka and Glomgold. What was a pretty simple race to the top of a rope in the first game, is now a death-defying escape from an active volcano with questionable hit detection. I had to replay the final, added level (which aside from the ending was quite good) repeatedly because I kept dying on this final part. Once I finally beat it I was too aggravated to enjoy it.

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And you thought only Zelda came in gold carts.

The game also adds additional collectibles that can be unlocked as you play, giving you something to do with all of the money Scrooge accumulates throughout the game. It’s mostly limited to concept art and background stills from the game but it’s still fun to look at, though not really enticing enough to encourage repeated play-throughs. I wish Capcom had gone the extra mile and included an unlockable version of the original game or its much rarer sequel. There was a press kit sent out to select individuals that included an actual copy of the original NES game, painted gold, and with the Remastered artwork on the cart. Acquiring one of those on the after-market will set you back a few grand, though it is a pretty neat collectible (and one that probably really irritated those select few that had a complete library of NES games in 2013).

Ultimately, DuckTales: Remastered is a fine enough love letter to the original game. It looks and sounds great, though it’s not quite as much fun to play as the original (though Scrooge’s pogo is still just as satisfying as it was back then) due to the pacing issues. It’s an odd duck (pun intended) in that regard, as most objective onlookers would take one look at both and immediately decide they’d rather play the remake. If you enjoyed the original, Remastered is still worth your time as it’s pretty cheap to acquire and includes enough fan-service to make you smile. And at the end of the day, it’s still DuckTales and still inherently fun, even if it could have been more.


Gaming Controllers: Your conduit to a virtual world

When it comes to video game development, there are a lot of factors to consider when crafting the perfect game. Visuals have always been a top priority as they’re the simplest way to demonstrate quality to the consumer so the necessary hardware is required to craft some pretty graphics. A fast processor is certainly required or else those pretty games will be choppy and slow. Audio is obviously important, as who would ever want to go back to mono? When it comes to actually interacting with a game and that little avatar on the screen, few things are as important as a controller. There are a lot of different factors that go into creating the perfect controller. Before the NES the joystick was the preferred input method, which was replaced by the directional pad or rocker switch, which has now mostly been supplanted by the analog stick or nub. Those early Atari controllers usually only featured one action button, now anything less than eight is unacceptable. As games have advanced through the decades, the controller has been asked to do more. Let’s pay tribute to those who have done it the best.

First, let’s also make some dishonorable mentions, those controllers that failed to impress.

nintendo-64-controller-gray-flatNintendo 64 – How to rank this one? You all know it, that oddly shaped, three-handled device released in 1996 alongside the Nintendo 64. It wasn’t the first controller to feature an analog thumb-stick, but it certainly made it standard, which is about the only good thing I can say about it. It was chunky, the face buttons felt cheap, and the shoulder buttons offered little satisfaction. The Z-trigger was a nice touch, but unless you were playing one of the many 3D platformers featured on the N64, this one was lacking.

images-222Atari Jaguar – Just look at this thing. If you never handled one consider yourself lucky. Ignoring that the system was a terrible waste of money, this controller was a beast of unwieldy proportions. See that key pad? Of course you do because it’s gigantic. That thing had inserts that could be snapped over it depending on the game, but it was mostly a tacky, useless feature that just made the controller obtuse. The cheap feel didn’t help things either.

All right, with those out of the way let’s move onto the top five. For the controller to be considered, it had to be a “stock” controller during a system’s lifespan, meaning it came bundled with a new console. I also tried to give some deference to the controllers that paved the way, otherwise this top five would be really slanted towards the modern additions since developers have naturally had many opportunities to improve upon the designs of yesterday. Before I get to the top five, let’s first pay homage to the godfather of the modern controller:

nes-controller-flatThe NES controller – It’s the one that standardized the modern layout of basically every controller. The d-pad on the left, and action buttons on the right. Maybe the squared edges weren’t the best idea but the re-designed “dog bone” bundled with the later model NES rectified that mistake. It’s been improved upon by leaps and bounds, but few people thought at the time there was anything wrong with it.

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5. The Neo Geo CD Controller – Neo Geo is the console for SNK and their many arcade games. It was a high-end console for arcade enthusiasts as the giant cartridges were essentially identical to the arcade counterpart. As such, it was really expensive. It was also heavily populated by the fighters, and since every arcade cabinet is equipped with a joystick, the Neo Geo was bundled with one as well. When the Neo Geo CD came out though, it came with a more traditional controller. The layout is the standard established by the Super Nintendo with four face buttons arranged in a diamond shape, but the thing that stands out is that analog slider type of input on the left. Quite simply, it’s the finest analog stick or slider I’ve ever encountered, which is incredible since it’s over twenty years old at this point. It has a satisfying click to it and enough resistance for more precise actions. I’m not sure how well it would hold up with modern 3D games, but for 2D games it’s flawless. And best of all, it’s the only analog thumb-stick I’ve ever encountered that’s usable with fighting games. Anyone who tried to play Street Fighter IV on an Xbox 360 can tell you how impossible a task that is.

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4. Sega Genesis Six Button Controller – Not a stock controller initially, the six button version of the Genesis controller was the preferred controller by gaming enthusiasts who had a Genesis. And if you were really into fighting games, it was probably your favorite across all consoles. It maintained the standard Genesis d-pad, which included easy diagonals making it superior to the one offered by the Big N. The three buttons layout though was suboptimal, and the six button controller rectified that shortcoming. The layout made it super easy for games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat to access the strongest punch and kick attacks. By the time the Genesis 3 and the CDX came to be the controller even came with a turbo function (in case you forgot, gamers in the 90’s thought turbo was the greatest)! The only criticism that can be levied on this one is the size. Being quite small, it takes some getting used to in the hands of an adult male.

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3. The Xbox One – It’s more or less the same as the 360, which is probably what most gamers wanted. The ergonomics of the controller are pretty tried and true and this point, though while most controllers are trended more towards the smaller side, Microsoft still likes to keep their controller a little thicker than others. While the original Xbox controller was too much like the Dreamcast in that department (which was a contender for a dishonorable mention), the Xbox One controller has found a nice balance. The only thing holding it back is that damn D-pad. One of the measuring sticks of a controller is how well it handles all genres of games, and the Xbox One’s inability to properly control a quality 2D fighter is a hindrance carried over from its predecessor. If you don’t like 2D fighters though, a genre that has certainly seen its popularity apex long ago, then you’re probably good with this one.

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2. The Super Nintendo – The Super Nintendo is essentially the root of all modern controllers (excepting, of course, the oddball Wii controllers) as it established the preferred layout for virtually every game. A directional input on the left, diamond shaped action buttons on the right, and shoulder buttons for easy trigger finger access. The rounded edge made it comfortable, and the center of the controller was open for less important buttons and functions which is something future controllers took advantage of. The Super Nintendo controller was essentially perfect for its era. While most gamers would agree the the d-pad on the Genesis controller was superior, it wasn’t able to match the feel of the SNES controller, nor was the d-pad advantage enough to make up for the extra buttons. Oddly enough, Nintendo has been the one company to not really carry forward the SNES controller’s design. After it came the N64 and Virtual Boy, which also featured a terrible input device, before the Gamecube sort of brought Nintendo back to the old design. The Wii and Wii U obviously went in completely different directions for their input device, but at least they’ve had secondary controllers that resemble the SNES one. Sometimes it’s better to just stick with what works.

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  1. The Dual Shock 4 – Stick with what works seems to be an unofficial motto for Sony and its Playstation controllers. The original Playstation featured a controller that was essentially a SNES controller with two extra shoulder buttons and handles for added comfort. After the N64 made analog a big deal, it was replaced by the Dual Shock which added a vibrating function and twin analog sticks. The PS2 and PS3 did little to change from the Dual Shock, but the Dual Shock 4 brought about some slight modifications that have helped to make it gaming’s best all-around controller. The D-pad is still placed in a prominent spot despite the fact that it’s utilized less than an analog stick, but the analog input manages to remain in a thumb-friendly zone. The rear triggers are comfortable and responsive, and the diamond layout for the face buttons is preserved. Sure, the touchpad in the center of the controller is a novelty addition, but it’s not one that takes away from the controller’s main functions. It’s the one controller I really can’t complain about as it has a nice weight to it, it’s durable, and never lacking for buttons. Good luck to those who try and top it, but hopefully Sony continues to stick with what works.

Suikoden II

Suikoden II (1998) Suikoden II (1998)

In the early part of the 1990’s, there were basically two companies known for producing Japanese Role-Playing Games: Squaresoft and Enix. Square, as the legend goes, was rescued by the success of a last ditch effort for relevancy in the form of Final Fantasy for the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System. Prior to that, Enix had already staked its claim to RPG supremacy with its hit Dragon Quest (known as Dragon Warrior in the US). During the 16 bit era, Square would come to surpass Enix as the premier publisher for the genre, as not only were Final Fantasy’s many sequels hits, but so was seemingly everything else Square etched its name on. These two companies were not the only ones exploring the JRPG genre. When someone strikes gold with an idea a legion of copycats arise. Capcom would enlist Square’s help with localizing its own take on the genre with Breath of Fire. Capcom has since dabbled with the genre here and there without ever becoming a true power. One of the other main Japanese game developers was Konami. Back on the NES, Capcom and Konami were arguably the two most popular so it made sense for Konami to toss its hat into the JRPG ring and it did so with the Suikoden series.

Suikoden debuted on the Playstation in 1995, but the series truly arrived with its sequel in 1998 simply titled Suikoden II. Suikoden did not break the mold in terms of what it brought to the genre. Rather than trying to be something entirely different from the established franchises at the time, it opted to be a jack of all trades. Turn-based battles entered into via random map encounters paired with large, map-based tactical confrontations more commonly found in a series like Fire Emblem. Suikoden’s approach to variety is part of what made it a success, but also contributing to that success was its massive stable of characters and high stakes.

Suikoden II reserves its best character models for its boss encounters. Suikoden II reserves its best character models for its boss encounters.

When the Playstation was in vogue, I was an early adopter. I wore out my Playstation which conveniently ceased to function just a month before the launch of the Playstation 2. During my time spent with the Playstation I played a ton of RPGs, but none of the Suikoden games. For years, I’ve often heard from friends and relatives that I should seek out and play Suikoden II, if nothing else, but the game fetches obscenely high prices on resale markets and I was just never willing to pull the trigger (or borrow such an important game from a friend). Finally, Sony and Konami were able to make the game available this past June on the Playstation Network, and I’ve been playing it on my Vita ever since. It is kind of a shame that I did miss out on this one back in 1999 (when the US version was released) because I would have really enjoyed it then. However, that didn’t prevent me from enjoying it now.

Suikoden II is not unlike many games in the genre in terms of pacing and structure. As the player, you control a nameless, voiceless, shell of a character who seems unimportant at the game’s start but soon is arguably the most important person in the world. The main character and his best friend, Jowy, are soldiers in a youth brigade that soon is attacked from outside, and within, and disbanded. War has broken out across the land as the most powerful, ruling family is not just seeking to bring everyone else to knee but seeks total chaos and destruction of the world. The main antagonist, Luca Blight, is a villain so evil he’s boring, but like many games in the genre, he’s only the main villain for so long as another emerges from the shadows and the stakes get higher. Throughout the hero’s adventure he’ll encounter over 100 recruitable allies. Each character has his or her own reasons for joining the resistance against Blight’s tyranny and the player is free to mix and match parties of six almost at will throughout the entirety of the game. Travel takes place on a world map and the player can enter and exit towns and dungeons as they are found. If you’ve played any other JRPG from this era then it should feel pretty familiar.

At times, the player will be tasked with completing more tactical battles. At times, the player will be tasked with completing more tactical battles.

Battles are also pretty straight-forward. Enemies, aside from boss fights, are encountered randomly when on the world map and in dungeons. Battles are turn-based with the heroes and enemies having their order of attack determined by an individual speed score. There’s no active component to the fights as the player simply tells each character what to do and watches the round unfold. If both sides survive, then another round commences. Where Suikoden separates itself is by having battles be, up to, two groups of six. When assembling a party, the player is expected to pay attention to each character’s range:  short, medium, or long. Short range characters have to be placed in the first row and can only attack the opponent’s first row. Medium range characters can attack from either row, but can only attack the opponent’s first row. Long range characters can attack any enemy from the back row. By forcing the player to go with a 2×3 formation, the player is forced to mix-in medium and long range characters which is important because the short range ones usually pack the most punch when it comes to attack power. In addition to standard attacks, characters can also make use of runes, which once equipped to a character or weapon, grant the character magical abilities. Some of these, such as the ability to heal between rounds, are passive while others are actual attacks or defensive spells. Rather than have a collection of mana or magic points, characters simply can only cast a certain amount of spells in between rest stops (such as sleeping at an inn). Early in the game, a character may have access to three level one spells and a single level two spells, but by the end of the game that same character will likely have access to level five spells as well. Characters more proficient with magic can equip more runes with the best able to equip one on each hand plus one on their head and weapon. And not all runes are equipable on all characters. This helps make each character feel unique not just among the other 107, but even from one play-through to the next. Lastly, borrowing a page from Chrono Trigger, certain characters can be paired with other characters for Unite attacks. These are kind of a secret in the game, but they’re also logical in terms of the pairings. Experimentation is encouraged.

Suikoden II's most memorable attribute is undoubtedly its large roster of characters. Suikoden II’s most memorable attribute is undoubtedly its large roster of characters.

Occurring at set points during the games are the tactical battles. As mentioned before, these battles very much imitate Nintendo’s Fire Emblem as characters are moved around on a grid and engage in combat that has a bit more of a random feel to it but is also more strategic. Very rarely is the player able to simply overwhelm the opponent necessitating a more thoughtful approach. Death in this scenario also has the possibility of being permanent making the stakes much higher. Even so, most of these encounters are fairly easy and few actually require the player to completely vanquish the opposition. Ranged attackers can often be leveraged to dish out most of the damage against non-ranged enemies with the short-range attackers being called upon to clean up the mess. As a result, Suikoden II’s approach to these tactical battles feels kind of half-assed but they are still a nice change of pace when they occur.

Graphically, Suikoden II comes up short when compared with most of its peers. The game makes use of sprites as opposed to 3D models with very limited use of CG effects. Some of the larger enemies are attractive, but they also seem to tax the system and slowdown is a frequent problem. The original game is said to be buggy at times as well, though I never encountered any playing on the Vita. The simple visuals have kept the game from aging horribly, as some titles from that era have, but it is kind of disappointing that a late era Playstation title wasn’t given a bit more love from its developers. The soundtrack is quite good though, with the game often reserving its best pieces for its biggest moments. This comes at the expense of the more mundane moments and I did find myself getting sick of the world map theme after 40 hours or so.

Where Suikoden II really separates itself from its peers is with its tone. The story is handled in a very serious manner. As I mentioned earlier, Luca Blight is kind of a silly villain but once he’s out of the way the main confrontation becomes far more interesting. The game does suffer a bit from its rigid approach to story-telling, but that was pretty common for the era with more open-ended plots a recent phenomena. I found myself often disagreeing with the choices the game had my character making but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the storyline for what it was. I also enjoyed watching the hero’s castle, acquired maybe a quarter of the way into the game, improve as the game went along. I also really appreciated the fact that there were not many missable characters or items, as if you want to see the game’s best ending, you need to recruit all 107 characters. I also appreciate that the game made some attempt at giving each character a backstory, and it’s also pretty easy to bring an under-leveled character into the main party and get them up to speed quickly. This is something a game like Chrono Cross should have tried to emulate.

In short, gameplay-wise, Suikoden II is not terribly unique when compared with other games from the Playstation era, but that’s not a bad thing. What’s there works and it’s a fun game to play. Sure, random encounters can get annoying (and they’re really bad during the final dungeon) but anyone who grew up with these games should be able to deal with it. The variety of the characters helps keep the game fresh even on multiple play-throughs. I may have missed out back in 1999 when this game first arrived on US soil, but I’m glad to have experienced it now in 2015. And if you’re in the same boat as me, playing it on the Vita is a nice way to experience the game on the go. If only Suikoden III was playable on Vita then I’d have something to play tomorrow when I’m riding the train to work.


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