Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 9: Nostalgia Dies Hard

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Trash Culture Literary Corner: Worlds of Power: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest: Prelude: Revenge of the Colons

It’s come to my attention that certain people have called into question the scientific rigor of this blog, and in fact the entire field of “trash culture studies,” so to deal with the ever persistent issue of genre elitism I’ve turned away from comics and video games toward the world of literature.  Thus on today’s docket we have…

Except for “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, I can’t think of any trash culture reading materials that were more ubiquitous among my generation.  The “Worlds of Power” books were designed by Seth “F.X. Nine” Godin and his shadowy legion of ghostwriters for one reason:  to make money, obviously, but also I think they were a sincere attempt to get young gamers into reading.  Honestly, at the time, it wasn’t a bad idea.  Nowadays, no matter what the snobs say, video games have for the most part come into their own as a storytelling medium.  It’s arguably futile to translate something like Final Fantasy VII or Silent Hill 3 into literature, since games like those are able to convey narratives on their own and those narratives are intertwined with, say, the dread that comes from exploring the “Otherworld” or the sense of determination the player might feel in facing Sephiroth after hours of seeing Cloud tortured in nearly every possible sense by the villain.

In the case of Castlevania II and most of the other console games around when the “Worlds of Power” books were published, they were still largely blank slates.  Not counting the occasionally epic sagas you might find in a game’s instruction manual, what stories games of that time had were pretty much just excuses to get you from point A to point B.  Granted Castlevania II did have one of the more interesting, if not bizarre, premises out there.  See, you play Simon Belmont, fresh off slaying Dracula in the original Castlevania.  Unfortunately, Dracula managed to curse Simon, condemning him to an early (and presumably unpleasant) death and to be hounded by zombies every night.  The only way to save himself is to collect the remaining body parts of Dracula, use them in the ruins of his own castle to resurrect him, and destroy him once again.  Even as a kid, the plot kind of bothered me, since it basically meant that Simon was willing to risk unleashing Dracula and his undead hordes upon the world yet again just to save his own ass.  On reflection, though, that did give even the vague plot a kind of edginess, a gray hue, that was lacking in the era.  Undoubtedly Castlevania II is the least popular of the three Castlevania games released on the NES (even Konami agreed, if the fact that they ditched Castlevania II’s adventure game elements – keeping them ditched until the Playstation era – and went back to the original recipe for III is any indication), but because of its premise alone it’s probably also the ripest for an ambitious, ground-up remake (of course you can always count on hardcore fans with way too much time on their hands to pick up where the actual copyright holders have dropped the ball).

All this to say, I know that the Worlds of Power books are written for a middle school audience, and even then they are to The Hunger Games what ibuprofen is to crack (or is that the other way around?).  But of course a really young target audience and being a franchise cash-in might mean the odds are a billion to one that it would be any kind of a classic, but it could still be good or at the very least a little fun.  After all, Castlevania is one of the classic video game concepts, and like I wrote above Castlevania II has one of the most interesting premises of the 8-bit era, so it would actually take more effort to screw things up than write a halfway decent story, especially since the actual games’ creators have already done all the heavy lifting for the writer.  It’s not even like the ghostwriter would have to do that much research, so…!

“I will drink your spirit like cherry pop!” said the count, flapping his cape and showing his fangs.  “Yes, Simon Belmont!  You will become one of my children of the night!”



Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 8: One Winged Angel

I honestly can’t say if Final Fantasy VII is as divisive as it used to be, but like I said last time back in the day you were either pro-VI or pro-VII.  And I was so vehemently, fanatically pro-VI that I’m ashamed to admit that I actually refused to acknowledge VII.  It was years before I actually played it, and even longer before I actually completed it.  In a lot of ways, VII truly is in many ways the literal and spiritual sequel of VI, despite all the differences on the surface.  Both toy with if not flat-out deconstruct Japanese RPG tropes;  both make full use of their non-traditional (or more exactlynon-medieval) backgrounds; and they both push a series already known for its emphasis on plot even further.

From the very start, VII already breaks the mold.  You start the game not as a member of a group like the “Light Warriors” or as a lovable rogue like Locke from VI, but as a mercenary working for a terrorist group the game explicitly tells you is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people.  VII’s hero, Cloud, tends to get remembered as a brooding, mopey protagonist, but that’s not the whole story.  What then looks like it’s become a straightforward story of misfits – two terrorists, a bartender, the remnant of an ancient civilization “disguised” as a flower girl in the slums, a sentient lion-like being, and (possibly) an amateur ninja/thief and a gunslinging vampire-like entity – against a powerful, sinister corporation slowly killing a planet in a short-sighted quest for greed subtly becomes something else:  a  tale about identity, memory, and the fight against a tragic villain and a truly incomprehensible, Lovecraftian threat.  It takes Final Fantasy to the next level of storytelling the same time it took the series to the next level of technology.

Of course, even people who praise the game do admit that it started trends that would lead to the downfall of the series, leading to a real divide between the “pre-VII” and “post-VII” fans.  It taught Square the wrong lessons, leading the Final Fantasy games to emphasize cinematics over art and to cling to contemporary and sci-fi aesthetics rather than experiment with worldbuilding further, and unleashed the anime and cosplay hordes upon the franchise, although arguably that invasion wasn’t really launched until VIII came along.

Still, you can’t blame VII like I childishly and stupidly did, and VII definitely isn’t responsible for one of the problems that emerge later:  over-experimental and overcooked gameplay.   Instead VII‘s gameplay is beautiful simplicity.  The characters do lose a lot of the “gameplay individuality” the characters in VI has, but with the materia granted characters spells and abilities there is a certain degree of strategy to the character building, which doesn’t need to be learned inside or out just to do well.

So in the end I’ll have to conclude that both VI and VII are the golden age of the franchise.  However, the fall did come quickly…

Spiritual Warfare, Video Games

Spiritual Warfare Part 5: Bananas Are the Ultimate Weapon

First, a confession:  I cheated a little.

Maybe cheated isn’t the right word, but I did break my own promise to myself that I’d come at this game raw.  I ended up looking at a walkthrough on GameFAQ, to spare myself the horror of trying to find another key.  Luckily, I found out that, in a rare instance of the lazy programming working in my favor, the keys respawn after a fairly short period.  This is a bigger deal than you realize, for reasons I’ll get into below.

For now, though, I want to address something mentioned by Adam, author of the walkthrough, when he said he went ahead and wrote the walkthrough (which to date is the only one on GameFAQs) because he thought Spiritual Warfare was a pretty good game, if only because the – to put it kindly – source material is so good.

I can’t really agree.  After all, here’s a game where the programming is so obviously flawed there’s no rhyme or reason to the way enemies drop items, where characters bleed into the backgrounds like they’re transparent ghosts, and there’s more than a couple of areas where the only way to progress is to suck it up and take damage.  On the other hand, it does at least meet all of the basic criteria for a game, and it is playable.  I’ll admit that on any list of Worst Video Games of All Time Spiritual Warfare should be down from, say, the infamous Plumbers Don’t Wear Tieswhich was about as much of a video game as the chapter selection menu on a DVD is  a video game.  But I will say, in defense of Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties, it did give us this:

As for Spiritual Warfare, I think you can make a defense that it isn’t bad, but at the same time…if you want to play it, there’s just no reason not to play Legend of Zelda instead.

Anyway, the last time we joined NotLink for his adventures in Dawkinsville, he was frustrated by coming to a locked door without a key after having to run through a hurricane of bullets.  Now I know that doesn’t seem like a big deal, especially if you’re going through a Zelda model, but of course in Wisdom Tree fashion this game takes a simple idea and turns it into another lash on the cat-o’-nine-tails.  Keys are few and far in between in this game, and they’re not at all contingent on the area you happen to be exploring.  Let me explain:  in Legend of Zelda, while late in the game you did have the option to buy keys and you could use different keys in different labyrinths, for the most part you were expected to be able to use the same keys in the same labyrinth.  Not so in Spiritual Welfare, where for example there’s a key but no locked door in the Airport area, while there’s a locked door but no key in the Warehouse area.   So obviously you can’t rely on finding a key to that locked door you came across anywhere nearby.  Here’s a pro-tip:  exploit the hell out of the key respawning thing and just grab two or three keys from the same room.  As an ancillary to that, here’s another pro-tip:  play a Zelda game, or just about any other game, instead.

Okay, I have to give credit where it’s due.  When I went back to the airport to get a respawned key, I did notice that there’s an area in the Airport where you can get a heart container by climbing into the airport baggage carousel.  Even here it’s a little buggy – it’s pretty obvious the programmer or programmers didn’t know how or didn’t want to bother with making the conveyor belts actually work against the player’s own movements – but it’s actually a pretty clever way to hide a bonus item in a game that takes place in a modern setting.  Another thing I noticed is that you can heal without the use of items or going through those annoying Bible quizzes.  There’s an option on the menu for “Prayer,” which lets you heal at the expense of your “spirit” – those dove thingies that are the game’s equivalent of Rupees.  It does raise the theological question of why God is sending you out to face flying demons and toughs armed with guns that shoot bullets as big as the human body, and you still have to beg him not to let you die…yet it is a decent game mechanic that actually uses the game’s Christian motif in an original way, rather than slaps it over something else.

But what Spiritual Warfare giveth, Spiritual Warfare taketh away.  Hence the forklift drivers that want you dead, who are such hardcore atheists they can’t be converted.  Also they’re pretty fast, they move at random, they can move blocks around allowing them to block your path of escape, and they attack you in the narrowest spaces possible.  Now I’ll admit I’m not as good a video game player as I was back when I was 13, but I hope this helps you understand why my life is so low in so many of these screenshots.

Also for a while now I’ve been noticing that the game has its equivalent of the teleporting whistle from The Legend of Zelda:  train stations.  Try to use them and you’ll be told you need a ticket.  Admittedly I haven’t really been putting my whole ass into this game (although as you may have noticed I’ve been finding the heart containers alright, but honestly they’re easier to find than they were in any of the Zelda games I’ve played), but I’m pretty sure I haven’t overlooked it.  So here’s a prophecy:  it will turn up near the end of the game, when the ability to teleport to the game’s different regions will no longer be useful. God help me, I have become psychically attuned to this game.

Even the Bible quizzes, which just inherently sucked to begin with, are getting worse.

Yeah, I’m playing a crappy Christian video game;  the answer could totally be one of the guys from the other major world religions!

But I didn’t know then that NotLink was in for another crappy, overly difficult boss fight.  For, in fact, that’s what was behind the sealed door in the Warehouse.  Like most of the other boss fights, there’s a puzzle element:  here you run at the bottom of the screen while the boss runs in and out of the room and fires  heat seeking bullet-bomb things (really) at you.  When the bullet-bomb thing is fired, one or two sections of the wall separating you from the boss will glow purple.  You’re supposed to run to a spot under that brick, so that the bullet-bomb will hit it and explode.  When part of the wall is blasted away, it reveals ladders that you can eventually use to climb up to where the boss is.  While where the boss fires the bullet-bomb and where the bullet-bomb lands is determined by where you’re standing, where the bricks glow is completely random.  This means that sometimes a section of the wall will glow near the top of the wall where it’s literally impossible to get the bullet-bomb to go, and it will glow there, in the exact same spot, four times in a row.  Worse if you’re running to catch a glowing section on the far left of the screen or just trying to dodge one of the bullet-bombs, it’s really easy to accidentally go through the door and leave the boss room, which means you’ll have to start over again completely…and, yes, it happened to me.  Weirdest and most frustrating of all, you can blast some of the bricks with your own bombs to clear a path, but you’re not given any indication of which ones.  The game only lets you know when enough of the wall has been cleared that you can blast the rest of the path away with your own bombs by the fact that the boss just doesn’t show up again.  That’s nice of him.

So, in sum, what starts out as a puzzle-based boss fight quickly turns into a test of patience based on pure luck.

Also, as with all the other boss fights, there’s an angel right through the door.  What, so it was the angel who was shooting heat-seeking missiles at me?  I don’t remember any biblical patriarchs or apostles having their faith tested that way.  “Peter, thy faith shall be tested, by me running back and forth above you, and firing magic explosives that shall follow the heat of your flesh, and you must lure the explosives toward the bricks that glow.”  -John 22:3-4.

Well, whatever sadistic plan the angels had in mind (as if Bible quizzes for NotLink’s right not to die horribly was not enough), I did get the Boots that let me walk over the lava spilling out onto the streets of Dawkinsville.  Conveniently enough, one such nightmare street linked the Warehouse to a new area, creatively titled Hotels.  To be honest, this is my favorite part of the game so far.  For starters, it’s not a maze of madness and despair like the Warehouse zone.   For another, NotLink and every enemy with any red on them in the region looks more maroon than they did elsewhere in the game. It’s not bad programming, it’s a deliberate aesthetic choice!  And finally, it just featured this building:

If this building doesn’t show up as the game’s final boss, I’ll be disappointed…well, more than I already am.  Also the game tries to help God pull an Old Testament on you all over again, but I’ve learned my lesson.  Enjoy Hell, casino goers!  God’s okay with me getting shot at, but not okay with me going anywhere where there’s drinking or gambling no matter how many souls I can save by slapping them with fruit.

There really wasn’t much to this area, sadly, except I did uncover the best weapon in the game:  the banana.  It actually reaches across the room, unlike any other weapon in the game.   How convenient…and it means I’m nearing the end of the game!  

I don’t get why it’s the banana, though.  Unless…

I guess the banana is so much the “atheist’s nightmare” that it just literally flies across the room, whacks atheists in the face (in a totally non-sexual way, of course), and turns them into evangelicals immediately.  It all makes sense now, especially if it turns out this game was in fact programmed by Kirk Cameron.

Spiritual Warfare, Video Games

Spiritual Warfare Part 4: Our Darkest Hour

In my first installment of this seemingly neverending series I joked about how easy Spiritual Warfare was.  Of course, that didn’t last, and almost immediately the game cranked up the challenge dial to near “Screw You” levels.   This being a Wisdom Tree game, naturally, the challenge mostly comes out of built-in unfairness, like a Math exam where almost half of a word problem has been cut off by sloppy use of the copier but the teacher is sadistic enough to deny you automatic credit for it anyway.

No, it’s not about love. It’s about a pretty obvious allegory for the Roman Empire that deranged morons interpret as being about the UN and nuclear war, which someone in the second century AD would have totally been able to understand.  But I don’t think this is what they had in mind by making the answer “false.”

At least I have been able to totally kick-ass with the biblical questions, which is important, since I’ve been needing the health points and the odds of an enemy dropping a heart is about one million to one.   It also gave me an unintentional ego boost.  See, one of the questions asked…

…the “correct” answer is false.  However, Jesus does say that divorce is acceptable in cases of “sexual immorality” (Matthew 19:9).  I know more about Scripture than the people at Wisdom Tree!  That’s…not much of a victory, honestly.

Anyway, once you get to the tougher areas of the Slum, and more so when you start out in the Warehouse region of the map, you start to see what the programmers had in mind when they were told to increase the difficulty for the kids.  For one thing, instead of mazes in Labyrinths, the game presents mazes that involve going through buildings and passing through insultingly easy “puzzles” that consist of nothing more than pushing obstacles out of your way.  The kicker, which only a truly bad video game publisher like Wisdom Tree can deliver, is that sometimes you go through all that trouble, fighting and pushing obstacles through two or three whole buildings in a row, only to find that you just end up at a point in the overworld that you could have accessed just by walking a few screens over anyway.  Sure, you might pick up a cache of bombs on the way, but that’s it.

The game had been building up to this style of “challenge” and “fun” for a while, but it really comes to a head in the Warehouse area, which is at least 90% wandering around buildings and underground tunnels that mostly lead nowhere. It would be nice if the game gave you any indication of whether or not you’ve cleared an area, or if you had a separate map for each of the special regions, but they don’t, so the game becomes less of a “game” and more of an “infinite abyss of existential despair.”  There are even points in the Warehouse region where you seemingly have no choice but to take damage.

See that tunnel where the thug is shooting bullets (as big as he is but whatever)?  And that he happens to be shooting from the other end of where I’m climbing down?   The thug does fire in a very predictable pattern, but NotLink definitely does not move fast enough to get to the other ladder before a bullet gets to him.  Nor is any of NotLink’s weapons capable of reaching the thug from that distance.  You could try to run over, get in firing distance, and run back to your original position before a bullet catches you, but that doesn’t work either since the bullets are faster than NotLink.  Really the only option is to take the damage, count on the one-second invincibility that you get from being damaged, and use that to get to the ladder.  The game just doesn’t leave you with any other option.

So, after dealing with things like that, I think I’ve finally worked out which buildings just lead to other easily accessible buildings (which is apparently most of them) and which ones actually lead somewhere.  While again Spiritual Warfare doesn’t deign to inform you of your goals in any given area, the Warehouse region, while hard and annoying and frustrating and despair-inducing, is one of the few spots where you are mercifully given a clue as to what you’re supposed to do:  find the Boots that let you walk on lava (yes, there’s lava just bursting through the streets in this game;  I think this city has many more problems than just homicidal atheists).  I get excited as I start to reach rooms and spots in the region I don’t recognize.  Unfortunately, another sign is that the game ups its dickishness even more.

Case in point:  a tunnel where apparently a squad of thugs have just been waiting around, just for a chance to see NotLink dead.  The picture doesn’t quite convey the hopelessness of this scenario.  The bullets are all but impossible to dodge, especially because the enemies fire them almost simultaneously, and you have to climb up and down three ladders until you’re anywhere close to the right distance needed to retaliate.  It’s at this point that I no longer believe this is a game made for a Christian audience.  No, it was a nefarious plot by Richard Dawkins to make Christian kids so disgusted with Christian video games they’d give up their religion, if not faith in any divine being entirely.  “How could Jesus give his name to anything this unholy?” they’d say.

With such theories buzzing in my mind, I still made it, even though my almost full life bar has been reduced to a heart and a half.  However, as I go through the exit my heart skipped a beat.  I wouldn’t have put it past the programmers of this game, out of sheer sadism or incompetence, to create such an unforgiving area and have it result in the player just looping back to the main Warehouse region.  As soon as I make it to the other side, I breathed a sigh of relief.  It’s a new area!  And given how hard it was just to get this far, the Boots must be just a couple of screens away.  With the Boots, I can finally say I finished one more “level”, putting me one step closer to finishing this Old Testament-style plague on the human race.  So I walk a couple of screens over and…


Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Non-Nostalgia Reviews: Silent Hill: Downpour

Full disclosure:  I think the first three Silent Hill games are the not only great games, but their stories and use of atmosphere stand out in any medium.  I even like Silent Hill: The Room, the somewhat less popular last game done by the original developers, Team Silent.  However, I never got around to playing Silent Hill: Homecoming, which Downpour apparently resembles, at least in its combat system.  So, for better or for worse, I’m coming from the perspective of someone who veers maybe a little too close to being one of those  “It was good, now it sucks” fans (but in fairness the only Silent Hill game I’ve really loathed so far was Origins.)

When reports about Downpour‘s premise came out, I was a little dubious.  Instead of an everyperson, Downpour gives us Murphy Pendleton, a convict who escapes into Silent Hill when the prison bus transporting him crashes.  Pursued by a prison guard whose interest in catching Murphy might be more than just professional, Murphy quickly discovers, soon after breaking into an eerily abandoned cafe, that the town itself may be judge, jury, prison, and, of course, executioner.  It is a good premise, and while in a few ways it’s a kind of “spiritial sequel” to Silent Hill 2, it does break with series tradition in a way that made me both hopeful and anxious.   Luckily, even though I’ve only played through about 30% of the game so far, Murphy is a good morally ambiguous protagonist (although really the player determines  how “morally ambiguous” he actually is!) and the game exploits the prison theme to the hilt, to the point of giving the “Otherworld” a real decrepit prison theme that constantly draws on new images of water and electricity as well as the old-fashioned  Silent Hill ambiance of industrial decay.

Of course, the main question for me was:  how does Silent Hill: Downpour work as horror?  Well, it depends.  Downpour just doesn’t capture that delicate mix of sound, tone, and atmosphere that made the original Team Silent games so effective and memorable.  Maybe it’s actually for the best that it doesn’t, but there are points in the game where it just…feels like you’re playing a survival horror game, a sense that, in my opinion, the first three games avoided.  Maybe people who actually played Homecoming would know better, but it does seem like Downpour continues that tradition of being focused on combat that Homecoming was criticized for.  Maybe it makes sense in the context of the game, since even early on you find out that Murphy is a prisoner who is at least somewhat used to violence, but the feeling of desperation and the feeling of dread as you entered a new room or area that pervaded the Team Silent games is largely absent (although it is nice that, when Murphy is faced with a monster, he shouts out “Fuck!”, a welcome touch of realism.)  For all that, making torrential rain a game mechanic – when it pours, the monsters come out hunting for your blood – was an excellent touch that gives the player a real sense of urgency and a reason to…well, GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE.  There are quite a few subtler touches too:  a radio DJ trying to reach anyone with increasing desperation;  the bits of background information and how they’re used to disturbing effect (for instance, just after reading about a train accident in a cave that killed eight children because of a drunk driver, Murphy comes across a shadowy area sealed off with police tape while empty beer bottles sit on a nearby cardboard box); and even the fact that the loading screen, which normally shows tips for gameplay, will sometimes show messages like “They never loved you” and “It knows you’re alone.”

Another big change is that Downpour gives you much more room to explore than most of the previous games, and there’s more to do than just hunt for extra items and hidden weapons.  While there is a linear story that makes it clear where you should go, Downpour also offers optional areas in the town to explore and even “side quests.”  I tend to think the argument that games need to offer lots of side quests for the sake of “replayability” is more or less BS, since it assumes that video games, unlike other media such as novels and films, can’t be worth experiencing again for their own sake, but still if any series was a natural for a more expansive world it’s Silent Hill.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only player of the early games who wished he could have actually gone into some of the businesses in Silent Hill 2, for instance, or revisited some familiar territory other than the amusement park in 3.

The one way Downpour doesn’t quite work as a game is with its combat.  Having not played Homecoming, which apparently resembles this game’s fight mode, I can’t say anything about whether it’s an improvement or not.  The one definite criticism of Homecoming I remember reading is that the game was not only too action-oriented, but the fights were too easy.  Apparently the developers were aware of this criticism, because the fights in this game even on “Easy” combat mode are rough (although I’m willing to admit the possibility that I just suck at the fights here).  Also the pattern I’ve noticed is that the monsters like to ambush, which seems to undercut the feeling of dread the game tries to cultivate. But at least you have many weapons that don’t break right away, like the lead pipe in Origins that gives up after four or five uses…freakin’ Origins…

Anyway, is this the game that completely revitalizes the franchise?  Maybe, maybe not, but what Downpour gets right it gets right indeed, and fans worried that the new development team would cut as many ties with the series as possible should be pleasantly surprised by the number of references and nods to the Silent Hill mythos that are there.  It may lack some of the more intangible things that made the series great, but between a great story and a care for detail and atmosphere it’s an installment worth investigating.


The Most Effeminate Male Villain: Final Fantasy vs. Disney

So you’re writing a novel or a movie and you’re trying to decide on some quality that will make your villain more distinctive, more unusual. There’s one easy way: have them defy gender conventions! Thus we end up with villains like Ursula from The Little Mermaid, who was modeled after the Ur-drag queen Divine (yes, really) and Jafar from Aladdin, who wasn’t modeled after anyone in particular except a bunch of really dusty Arabic stereotypes. Okay, okay, I love Final Fantasy and I love Disney’s animated movies (well, most of them), so I don’t want to imply that the makers of these franchises are being reactionary or homophobic or heterocentric or whathaveyou, and I’ll just leave it to Gender Studies majors to parse out the implications. I’ll just say I think it all comes down to the cultural language we’re all programmed with, and not any attempt to respond to contemporary political or social issues – unlike, for example, the insanely homophobic portrayal of King Edward II in Braveheart (because it cannot be said enough times: screw you, Mel Gibson, even if you did an elaborate cameo in one of the greatest Simpsons episodes ever).

I just find it amusing that two franchises I like both went through the same trend in the early-mid ’90s: really effeminate bad guys. And I by “effeminate” I mean “almost in the drag-queen realm.”

Jafar vs. Emperor Palamecia


















Well, okay, maybe Jafar isn’t halfway toward auditioning for Edna Turnbladt in Hairspray, but he does come across as a homicidal Paul Lynde. Although unlike Uncle Arthur and the real life Paul Lynde, he does enjoy kissing a princess.

But, of course, sexual orientation doesn’t mean a guy can’t sashay with the best of them.

Emperor Palamecia is trickier to pin down, because what little personality he has only comes across in Dissidia and even then it doesn’t go beyond a few lines of dialogue. Nonetheless, we just have to look at him to see he’s like the offspring of Uncle Arthur and Hedonism Bot, which can only make him the winner of this round.




































Scar vs. Kuja

















Scar does embody a pretty old literary stereotype – the mincing, cowardly, luxury-loving, treacherous male villain in comparison to the earthy, honest, and butch male hero. But it’s hard not to like him anyway, from the moment he scorns his inconvenient nephew Simba and sneers, “Shall I curtsey?!”

Kuja, on the other hand, represents…I don’t know, glam rock’s invisible yet pervasive influence on Japan? In Final Fantasy IX Kuja is an extraterrestrial arms dealer trying to trigger an apocalyptic global war, but his costume instead makes it look like his ultimate objective is to be the next Lady Gaga.

Admittedly it’s a close call, but I have to call it for Scar.  Kuja’s got the dress, but Scar is an out-and-unashamed metrosexual lion.  Plus we know he’s the real protagonist of The Lion King.  

Ratcliffe vs. Seymour








Not only is Pocahontas‘ villain Governor Ratcliffe a fancy boy, but he even has an effeminate animal sidekick, a dog named Percy. That’s a new height for any of the villains on this list. Plus he gets his own song with the lyric, “Think how they’ll squirm when they see how I glitter!”

By rights he should win, and yet…there’s Seymour, who in Final Fantasy X is basically an evil Pope as envisioned by David Bowie’s Goblin King …

The real scandal isn’t that Seymour is an undead being (who gets beaten up by your party every two hours) or that he serves a corrupt Church that is complicit in a cycle of mass murder carried out ritualistically at the behest of a literally mindless spirit, but that at least 40 percent of the tithes paid to the Church goes to Seymour’s hair.

I mean, I’m sure Radcliffe leads a pricey, lavish lifestyle, but Seymour wins simply because his annual hair care budget surpasses the GDP of some small countries.  Truly that makes him the maester of metrosexuals, and in the world of Spira which includes girly frat boy Tidus that’s quite an accomplishment.

Winner:  Final Fantasy  

Disney put in some strong contenders in the early-mid ’90s, but the award goes to the Final Fantasy franchise.

Our Western sensibilities just couldn’t compete with a franchise from a culture that has formed entire genres out of having men with ambiguous sexualities and androgynous genders.

Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 6: Final Fantasy V

So this is the game we didn’t get.  In a way, Final Fantasy V was the anti-Mystic Quest.   While the gameplay of Mystic Quest was boiled down to the bare bones, and then thrown back into the pot for more, Final Fantasy V added a whole new element of challenge by taking the job system from III and giving it a further strategic angle by making it possible to mix and match different skills from the different “jobs” as well as throwing in a host of new jobs that somewhat take the series away from its Dungeons and Dragons roots.  Not only can you be a black mage or a samurai, but now you can also have a party of beastmasters, mimes, and dancers.  There really isn’t much cooler than having a bunch of dancers kick the ass of a killer mech.

But…I never really got into this one, at least to the point where I feel strongly about it the way I feel about IV and (as you’ll see) VI.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I still think the Super Famicon/Nintendo trilogy is the peak of the series, and that Final Fantasy V is a great game on its own.  Plus maybe part of the problem is that the nostalgia factor just isn’t there;  like the other “lost” Final Fantasies I didn’t get to play this one until much later.  But after the tour de force that was IV the plot seems a little hollow.  A traveler Bartz (still better than his name in early fan translations, “Butz”) stumbles across a meteor/ship piloted by an amnesiac named Galuf.  The two later team up with a princess seeking to rescue her lost father, Lenna, and Faris, a cross-dressing pirate, to stop the destruction of the Elemental Crystals which are the only things preventing the resurrection of the evil Exdeath (obviously they don’t succeed with that bit).  I mean, yes, IV had a cliched evil wizard villain like V’s Exdeath (well, really, Exedes, but “Exdeath” is a lot more fun to write), but IV ‘s Golbez at least had an aura of mystery surrounding him and his motives, leading up to a couple of genuine plot twists.  With Exdeath…well, he wants to unlock the power of oblivion so that he could make himself a god.  And the only twist here is that Exdeath is a tree – one that has been possessed by dozens if not hundreds of exorcised demons and spirits, yes, but still a tree.  Well, tree or not, at least he got a pretty awesome theme song:

I should make it clear, though, that I’ve got nothing against this game.  Especially since it gave us Gilgamesh, everyone’s favorite clueless collector of knock-off swords who seems to be one of the few things tying together the series’ different worlds together.    Then there’s the fact that, despite my criticism of the plot and even though the cast is smaller than IV, V does a really good job making the characters look…well, like real characters, giving them authentic relationships and motives (if you don’t get at least a little sentimental during Bartz’s flashback, when “Music Box” plays, you are a soulless monster!).

Enough expository banter, let me admit that I do like, even love, this game.  It’s just for some reason I can’t be as passionate about it as I am with other installments in the series.  Maybe the series’ formula was wearing a little thin, maybe there just wasn’t enough to distinguish it from the past games in the series, in which case Final Fantasy VI would prove to be just what the doctor ordered…


Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 5: Mystic Quest

Wasn’t the ad campaign for this game a horrible lie, even by the standards of ad campaigns?

Okay, okay, I’m going to come out and admit that it’s not fair to call Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest a bad game, not in a strict sense anyway.  It set out to provide a basic, watered-down introduction to console RPGs and, honestly, it achieved that goal quite well.  But at the same time it represented what was probably the most condescending message a company ever made to its own fanbase.  Square was basically proclaiming to Americans, you all can’t handle our real product (which in this case would be Final Fantasy V) so we’re going to give you a version that’s more up to your speed – and that speed would be somewhere along the lines of a golf cart with a defective engine.  Hell, when they released the game in Japan they even titled it Final Fantasy USA.  Square might as well have subtitled it “This is what Americans think a RPG should be!  Ha ha!  They embarrass us by buying our games!”

Now I’m sure there were other elements to Square’s decision.  Like the ad emphasizes, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was also cheaper, selling for $40 at a time when most RPGs for the Super Nintendo ran in the $50 – $60 range.  But, trust me, you could see where you saved that money.  The game didn’t even have its own graphical signature;  most of the graphics were souped-up and colorized from Final Fantasy Legend III.  You could also pretty much beat the entire game in a day or two of even casual playing, which was great if – like me – you made a habit out of renting video games and even RPGs for the weekend (P.S. I still curse the assholes who always erased my saved games when they rented the games before I could!), but not so good if you bought it expecting something like the 40 hour minimum players could expect to put into Final Fantasy IV.

Now I did say that technically it wasn’t a bad game.  The plot was really simple – in some ways it was a rehash of the original Final Fantasy, including a premise about the world slowly dying because someone is messing around with the Four Crystals of the Elements, but without the time travel elements coming out of left field and with a villain seriously called the “Dark King” – but the designers did try to have a range of characters, even though you never have more than two people in your “party.”  Also there’s actually a clever twist near the end where your hero finds out his status as the prerequisite “legendary chosen one” was based on a lie spread by the Dark King himself.  Nothing really comes of it, but still it was an unexpected way to play with one of fantasy fiction’s oldest cliches.  The gameplay was fun for what it was, and in a weird way, by having enemies visible on the screen rather than random encounters and having certain obstacles in dungeons that required the player to interact with the environment, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest actually predicted certain features that are common in RPGs today, including Final Fantasy XIII.

For all that, though, I’m not exaggerating when I say that the way the game is structured is downright insulting.  You’re not even trusted to explore the world map on your own.  Instead the game essentially guides you to place to place.  Also instead of seeing your Health Points in number form, in battle they show up as big bars, as if the mere act of understanding numbers is too much of a burden on the player.  And remember how I mentioned that the game replaces random encounters with monsters that show up on the field?  Well, those monsters are completely stationary.  Sure, once in a while they block where you need to go, but making the enemies as non-threatening as possible makes about as much sense as the Easytype version of Final Fantasy IV removing certain character abilities.  The game doesn’t even trust you to manage your own weapons and armor;  it does all that for you.  Playing the game is like talking with Frank Miller’s Batman.  It’s to the point that it actually does interfere with your enjoyment of the game.  And remember this was in the Before Time, before even our homes were flooded by free American OnLine discs.  You had to get your info from magazines, and even then you couldn’t trust everything you read in them;  not even GamePro, and sure as hell not Nintendo Power.  We thought we might be getting a true follow-up to the greatest RPG we ever played, not that RPG’s five-year old cousin!

Now of course there’s nothing wrong with trying to come up with something that gives a potential audience a painless introduction to a genre.  It makes great business sense and it doesn’t automatically mean quality has to be sacrificed.  Like this game, Lufia & The Fortress of Doom was designed to be a pretty elementary, no-thrills RPG for less experienced players, but unlike Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest that game still has something of a following and is actually sometimes remembered as one of the better if also one of the more obscure RPGs on the Super Nintendo.  You can’t even really call Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest a black sheep of the franchise, since that implies that the game was memorable in any way.  Why is Lufia remembered but not Mystic Quest?  It’s not just a matter of gameplay or insulting players’ intelligence by not even letting them figure out which weapons are better;  Mystic Quest just has no real identity of its own.  What identity it has comes handed down from the main series, to the point that the game is basically a lobotomized clone.  It might be easier than the games in the main series, but there’s really no point in playing it when you’re just getting half the experience that made the main series famous in the first place.

So, bottom line…Square really should have just given us Final Fantasy V.  


Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 4: Final Fantasy IV

And thus we enter the Golden Age…

Let’s get this out of the way first:  not only did the game come out in the US as Final Fantasy II (and really, in the dark primordial age before the Internet, most of us who weren’t able to read Japanese or didn’t have subscriptions to trade magazines thought it really was Final Fantasy II), but Square sent us the “Easytype” version of the game.  Back in the day, Square had a low opinion of American RPG players – perhaps with reason – so they gave us a version that not only was made easier, but had less combat options for the characters, because apparently having a main protagonist with a special attack that depletes his Health Points would melt our delicate brains.

Despite all that, Final Fantasy IV was a revelation.  For the first time (okay, fine, extremely arguably*), we had an RPG that was as much a work of fiction as it was a game.  It had a wide cast of characters with diverse personalities, motives, and backgrounds;  multiple plot twists; dramatic dialogue that expressed *gasp* feelings; and villains who, while mostly rather cliched (with the notable exception of Rubicante, who was portrayed as the classic “honorable bad guy”), had motives and goals beyond just “Destroy the world!”  True, for the sake of gameplay the plot had to make some rather bizarre turns, like the various random tragedies that befall your party just to explain why you never have more than five people in your party and the engineer Cid committing one of the most unnecessary (apparent) suicides in history,  but it still felt like a cohesive story just as sophisticated as one you could find in a novel or a film.  I was enthralled and it’s no exaggeration to say that I played the hell out of the game throughout my teenage years.  It got to the point where I was even remembering characters’ dialogue.

From the very start players saw just how much the series had evolved.  Instead of starting out with a group of warriors who pop up out of nowhere or a bunch of orphans, we begin with Cecil, who has a very well-established past as the airship admiral for the Kingdom of Baron (he even starts off at a much higher level than 1, which is a really clever touch).   By the time the game starts, Cecil is worried about Baron using military force to steal the elemental crystals from other cities and kingdoms, but for the time being his loyalty to his monarch outweighs his ethics.  This changes when Cecil and his friend, the dragoon Kain, is sent to deliver a package to the tribe of summoners in the valley of Mist, but the whole thing turns out to be an elaborate pretext for genocide against the summoners.  However, trying to trick his two best commanders into wiping  out an entire tribe is the proverbial straw, but in the chaos Kain ends up missing and Cecil is stuck with Rydia, a young woman who justifiably blames him for the death of her mother.  Riddled with guilt, Cecil sets out to somehow stop the Kingdom of Baron – and the man who is apparently pulling the strings, the sorcerer Golbez.

The game has gone through various re-releases, many adding new elements to the gameplay and new sidequests.  It even got a direct sequel, Final Fantasy IV: The After Years (see, Square Enix, doesn’t using a subtitle to designate a direct sequel make more sense than just calling it Final Fantasy IV-2?).  But in my opinion the original still holds up extremely well.  Even the “Easytype” version is worth playing, although admittedly it does take quite a bit of the fun out of the game.  The game is just beautiful simplicity, using the “new” graphic technology of the Super Nintendo to create detailed character portraits, unearthly multi-layered towns populated with monsters, dungeons with a bizarre quasi-organic look, and a truly monstrous and grotesque final boss.  I’m sure some tech snobs would complain that the gameplay really hadn’t changed much from the 8-bit years, but Final Fantasy IV still stands as proof that, while change is good, you don’t have to completely revolutionize gameplay for every installment in your megapopular video game franchise (hint, hint).  Anyway, I don’t want to end on a negative note, but, yes, this game is an indisputable classic and is still worth playing, even if it’s the watered-down American SNES version.  Sadly, though, even though Final Fantasy IV was both a commercial and critical smash when it first appeared in the United States, Square kept writing off their American fan base, so we wouldn’t see another real Final Fantasy sequel for another three years and instead we got…well, that’s for next time.

*That was mostly for you, Phantasy Star fans.