June 26, 2012

Square Wave: Killing with Cure

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest defines "below-average." In Japan, they called it Final Fantasy USA, and intended it as a kind of introductory lesson on RPGs, presumably aimed at particularly brain-damaged children who needed the corners cut off their toast for safety reasons. It is one of the blandest, most miserable exercises in monotony ever committed to a SNES cartridge, and as an educational experience for dolts it utterly fails. Mystic Quest doesn't go out of its way to impart tips on how to interpret character stats or how to manage an inventory of spells and equipment -- and more importantly, it falls completely flat in instilling any sense of how enthralling and personal the role-playing experience can be. It's not hard to imagine someone being forever turned off of RPGs as a concept after trying this one.

You play as a generic-looking, spiky-haired character sprite (default name: Benjamin) who literally has no origin at all. In the first minute, you're told by some nameless elder that four monsters sealed the doors of the Focus Tower, which links the four nations of the world -- and are draining the power of the four elemental crystals, which keep the balance of the seasons in check. For some reason, you and only you are tasked with the defeat of those monsters and the restoration of the world. It's like they took the most cliché bits of all the crappiest games they could find, and used that as the driving force of the plot. From there on, you explore sleepy towns, navigate dull dungeons, and grind yourself through hundreds of snore-inducing monster battles until ultimately you shut off the SNES console in shame.

Like a diamond in the rough, the best part of the game is actually the very end. The final battle against the Dark King is comparably impressive, and as you hack away at him he takes various sinister forms:

As cool as this fight was, with its multiple phases and swirling galaxies in the background, the best part was discovering that it could all be over in just a few rounds by casting your normally-restorative "Cure" spell on the Dark King -- dealing vicious damage like you'd never seen, rather than healing him.

Final Battle is the high point of what is admittedly quite a strong soundtrack, for so weak a game. It's a great example of a classic, old-school approach the "final boss" scenario -- rather than attempt to overwhelm you with the epic dread of a hopelessly-monstrous ordeal, the track energizes the game's climax with a sense of encouragement and excitement. "This is it!" the music seems to say. "Hang in there, hero -- you can do it!"

Track: Final Battle
Game: Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
Composed by Ryuji Sasai and Yasushiro Kawakami

June 25, 2012

This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

When Square Enix released Agni's Philosophy, a trailer claiming to be a "realtime tech demo" for... something... I had a rather unique reaction to it. While it was tempting for others to extol the quality of the visuals or descry what this change of setting could mean for the near future, I simply found it frustrating.

The video shows off scenes of generic urgency and very well-designed ambiguity, crafting a pseudo-story that never began and will never finish. We're not meant to believe that this hypothetical scenario is actually a vision of the next Final Fantasy game -- and thank goodness for that, as I'm not particularly enthused by the superficial faux-realism it aims for. I'm used to Final Fantasy having "guns" by now, but they've largely been fantastical firearms, like a sword that turns into a gun or an antiquated-looking blunderbuss -- not the full-on AK-47s you might see in so many modern shooters.

Still, it's not the content of the trailer that got to me. What I'm actually irked by is a lingering suspicion that this is what Square Enix has been diverting resources to, all this time. Don't they have better things to do -- like, oh, I don't know -- make the first proper Final Fantasy game of this generation? Last I checked, that was still their flagship brand, right?

I'm not one of those who claim the entire series has gone downhill, ever since < insert absolutely any FF title here, they've all been argued >. There are those games I love, those I like a little less, and those I find relatively unplayable. In the aggregate, I do still love the majority of them. Okay, so I may have once said that if it weren't for the job system and Gilgamesh's theme music, Final Fantasy V would be a miserable kusoge title on par with Quest 64. I still recognize that it's a matter of taste, and I do grant it its rightful place as an installment in the series, because it does more or less adhere to the fundamentals. No matter how one might criticize disparate elements of various installments in the series, no one can really argue that any of them aren't legit Final Fantasy.

Believe it or not, other game developers were once playing catch-up to Square, and wishing they had made Final Fantasy. I don't think they wish that anymore.

Final Fantasy XIII was first announced in early 2006, with the first trailer debuting in May -- almost half a year before the PS3 was released. The game didn't come out until March of 2010, though I'm convinced it was artificially delayed after it was more or less finished, so that the XBox 360 version could enjoy a simultaneous release. If it were another outstanding, deep RPG like any other main entry in the series up to that point, it would have been well worth the wait. What finally hit shelves, though, was barely a Final Fantasy game at all, save for some of the series' recurring proper nouns -- and barely an RPG, save for the fact that there are lots of fights and scenes where characters talk about things. Much of what gave the series its prestigious pedigree and loyal fan base went completely missing: towns, mini-games, side-quests, optional conversations and story scenes, secrets and hidden areas, absorbing level design, variety and contrast in gameplay, meaningful endgame content, maybe a few branching plot paths or an optional character, or even the ability to revisit most areas of the game. Nearly all you do in this game is hold the analog stick forward until your character gets into a fight or a dialogue scene triggers.

I don't bring this up just to take a dig at Square Enix, but rather to identify that there is a problem. I don't enjoy poking holes in FFXIII -- okay, maybe in a morbid kind of way I do, a little -- but mostly, I'm just an FF nut who wants to see the series return to its former glory. I could believe that some of FFXIII's omissions were conscious design decisions (there are some who are glad for the lack of towns, oddly enough). Still, I wonder how many of those decisions were made as a reaction to realizations of the skyrocketing costs of game development, rather than a natural preponderance for innovation. When they decided to reduce all shops to a single menu brought up at occasional computer terminals, part of that was a solution to how you justify the mechanics of purchasing supplies and gear in a depopulated wilderness -- but the fact that the game takes place in a depopulated wilderness is in itself a product of necessity, make no bones about it.

So, what does a responsible company do when faced with these complications? Does it spread itself as thinly as possible, continuously announcing new titles and spin-offs in rapid succession? It's become something of a running gag, that for every game Square Enix actually releases, they seem to announce development of three more. At the same time Final Fantasy XIII was announced, they also announced Final Fantasy Versus XIII. The first trailer appeared in December of 2006, and since then all we've seen are videos of establishing shots and story sequences, and recently a few quick cuts of some random battles. It's six years later, and I don't think there's a single person in the world who's actually seen this game in a playable state. I'm starting to wonder if it will ever see the light of day.

For reference, here are a few things that have happened entirely within the development period of Final Fantasy Versus XIII:
1) The entire Uncharted and Mass Effect trilogies have come and gone, as well as four Assassin's Creed titles.
2) 38 Studios acquired Big Huge Games, developed and released Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and two expansions, and recently collapsed into bankruptcy.
3) Square Enix themselves released both FFXIII and its direct sequel FFXIII-2, made the MMO FFXIV, and then made it again, and released six Kingdom Hearts games.

We're not talking about a young company who's just learning the ropes of the video game industry -- Square Enix is a behemoth that has been making all kinds of games, for decades. Final Fantasy has almost always been one of their most popular franchises, which is why we see so many remakes and spin-off games that borrow the name. Those spin-offs don't mean anything, though, if they can't maintain the integrity of their core titles.

It's really disheartening to see them trying to do everything but make a traditional Final Fantasy game -- not that I consider Versus one of those, but presumably it represents a similar scale, investment-wise. When the Agni's Philosophy video hit, it was the straw that broke the camel's back -- a slap in the face to that part of me that is still waiting for the next great RPG. The message I took away from that trailer was that not only are they revealing yet another pie-in-the-sky pipe-dream project of theirs before finishing what's already on the table, but that they spent undoubtedly a sizable amount of time and money on character design, motion capture, voicework, animation, model and environment rendering, writing, etc., for a new graphics demonstration that isn't even aimed at any game systems that currently exist.

A friend of mine suggested that perhaps this new next-gen graphics engine would help them streamline their development process. Okay, but if the engine is for next-gen systems, isn't that basically an admission that they've given up on improving their development process this generation?

June 22, 2012

Square Wave: SNESology

Before we get to the fun part, some minor business:

1) Music Monday is dead, at least in name. In retrospect, relegating the music section of the blog to a specific day of the week was as arbitrary as it was futile. I'll continue sharing gems from the wonderful world of video game music, but that ship will sail under a new banner: Square Wave. Updates will come on what one might generously call a "quasi-regular" basis.

2) What does Square Wave mean? For one, it means I'm completely unable to dream up an original title for a recurring feature on video game music. More importantly, it refers to one of the types of wave patterns prominently used in producing music by the sound chips of classic 8-bit game systems of yesteryear, like the NES and Gameboy.
In an ancillary sense, it could allude to the fact that video games appear to us via an arrangement of square pixels, or the lingering preponderance of game environment and object design to feature grids, boxes, crates, tiles, blocks, and cubes. It just seems to be part of the elementary grammar of games, born out of necessity once upon a time, yet still sewn into the fabric of today's virtual spaces.
Then again, considering that this blog represents what is undoubtedly one of the nerdiest pursuits of the modern age, "square" might refer to the unapologetic neurosis with which I'm apt to appraoch the hobby of gaming.

But enough talk -- have at you!

I've recently been exploring the chiptune music scene, which as it turns out is a lot more vast and varied than I ever imagined. It's not just the hacking of NES, Gameboy, or other vintage hardware to spit out quaint ditties, but rather a malleable and adaptable approach to music that takes electronics as an influence and can run with it across all genres in any conceivable direction.

For today's purposes we'll be sticking a little closer to home with something that is still very much wrapped in the instrumentation of games, but which does so in a novel and interesting way. SNESology bills itself as "New Original Music for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System," and is a project which has resulted in ripping sound files from a range of SNES games. It's not that the music itself is being edited or remixed, but rather that samples and instrument data have been extracted, creating a kind of "sound font" for artists to write and perform original music on keyboards, sequencers, and the like.

Across the Plains, an early composition for SNESology. As composer, programmer, and performer Shnabubula explains: "After many hours of hard work, I managed to completely rip and build an approximation of the Final Fantasy 6 (3 US) sound engine."

I've previously gushed over the amazing work put out by Shnabubula (Samuel Ascher-Weiss), for both his piano & chiptune tribute album NES Jams and his Metroid series medley with Gabriel Terracciano. As adept as he is at rearranging and reinterpreting video game music, his original material is just as impressive. While a variety of skilled individuals have come together for this project, from what I can gather Shnabubula seems to be the principal contributor and composer so far. As of now, he's written over ten pieces, all of which can be listened to via the SNESology page, the YouTube playlist -- or, best of all, on his Bandcamp page where they can all be downloaded for free.

Infiltration, written using the soundset from Contra III: The Alien Wars.

There are a lot of chiptune artists who are good at crafting nostalgic tracks that approximate "8-bit," or reference common sounds of the NES or Gameboy in general. However, there is no default "sound" of the Super Nintendo. Each game has its own specific instruments and character. A variety of games have been represented within SNESology, including Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Terranigma, Contra III, Super Mario Kart, and Super Metroid. The result is adventurous, new music that doesn't necessarily match the style or tone of the original games, but nonetheless can fade into and out of a familiar atmosphere in ways I'm not sure other forms of music have accomplished in quite the same way.

Hands of Fate, a piece combining the soundsets of three different games: Final Fantasy VI, Terranigma, and Chrono Trigger.

Shnabubula himself is currently taking a break from the project (hopefully for not too long), but other talented contributors have stepped in and provided their own remarkable compositions. It was actually an accidental stumbling across Jeff Ball's imaginative Most Beautiful Seduction that alerted me to SNESology in the first place. He seems to have been inspired by the original game's story and characters during his creation process, and that definitely comes across to the listener in the way the tone shifts over the course of the track, although he doesn't reference motifs from the soundtrack directly.

Jeff Ball writes: "This piece was created using instruments from Final Fantasy 6. It’s a journey into the mind of Terra, a dark and brittle look into her past."

There are many more pieces than the handful I've linked to here, and if you're a fan of the SNES era at all, it will be worth your while to at least browse the playlist.

April 30, 2012

Music Monday: Yet... Oh See Mind

God Hand is one of those games that I really want to like, but it keeps pushing me away. Being modeled after old-school beat-'em-ups like Double Dragon, and having a charming sense of humour about itself, there's not a lot to dislike about it. People who like this game like it a lot.

But... I dunno, I can't get into it. It's hard, right from the get-go, and there's kind of a high learning curve. You die easily, and if you perform poorly your character levels down. Still, something about it keeps hinting that there will be some point where it all starts to make sense as a game, and once I get in that groove I'm not going to be able to put it down. Books can be like that, tv shows can be like that, music can be like that -- and sometimes, games can be like that.

What already makes a lot of sense, though, is God Hand's music. It may be the most fun thing about this game, and today's track has been stuck in my head for weeks. Don't ask me what that title means, though -- I have no idea.

Track: Yet... Oh See Mind
Game: God Hand (originally released for Playstation 2, Sept. 2006)
Composed by Masafumi Takada and Jun Fukuda

April 26, 2012

Go Right

YouTuber RockyPlanetesimal has put together a stirring work of video collage and in-game puppetry that uses the simplest of means to say something great:

Sometimes, when the whole world seems to have gone wrong, all you can do is go right.

With Great Graphics, Comes Great Responsibility

A sentiment I've keenly felt throughout this generation of consoles is that games in general are striving for style over substance. Then again, perhaps "striving" isn't the mot juste -- "settling" might be a more appropriate wording. After all, is it fair to accuse the creators of the oft-maligned Final Fantasy XIII of intentionally setting out to produce a stiff, on-rails experience, in which player agency and depth of exploration were all but obliterated? I have no trouble believing that Square-Enix originally sought to craft a worthy successor to an impressive lineage of sprawling, fantasy epics, saturated with curious side-quests, mini-games, and other charming distractions and secrets. Unfortunately, after close to four or five years of development time, what we finally got was exceedingly restrictive and linear. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do -- essentially just a series of very picturesque hallways filled with monster battles, punctuated by scripted dialogue scenes -- truly, the JRPG equivalent of Time Crisis. The bulk of the time and money seemingly went into producing the (admittedly gorgeous) HD graphics, with little to none left over for anything else.

I'm fine with a linear plot, so long as it's captivating, well-told, and moves at a good clip -- but there needs to be something that makes me feel like this playthrough of the game is my own, and not necessarily the exact same as the next person's. There needs to be variety, contrast, and diversion -- occasionally, I need to get lost on a tangent before rejoining the main mission. All the little things we used to take for granted in role-playing games had evaporated.

Graphics: check.   Soundtrack: check.   Battles: check.
Okay, well I guess we're done -- oh wait, did anyone make an actual game?

Like several other frustrated Final Fantasy fans, I found myself wishing the balance of power had shifted more in favour of developing interesting dungeon designs, entertaining mini-games for variety's sake, and perhaps a few towns for good measure. Basically, I wanted a meatier gameplay experience, and if it meant the graphics had to take a hit or two along the way, that was fine.

Be careful what you wish for.

In a blog post on GameInformer, Chris "Warcraft" Kluwe expressed a great amount of anger toward Nintendo for the way Xenoblade Chronicles turned out. Misplaced anger, I'd say, since Nintendo made the Wii console which the game appears on and didn't develop the game itself -- yet despite some bouts of hyperbole, there are aspects of his arguments that I can sympathize with. I've tried out Xenoblade myself, and I'm psyched to give it more focus once a couple more games are off my plate (is there actually an end to Kingdoms of Amalur?), but already I've seen what he's talking about:

"...this game deserves better. It deserves better than gasping fish mouths bobbing up and down through beautifully crafted dialogue. It deserves better than jagged edged fuzzy textures comprising a breathtaking landscape..."

"I have to commend the folks at Monolith Soft. They’ve done the best they can with what they have available, and you can see the vision they’re so desperately trying to make a reality. The ideas on display in Xenoblade Chronicles are nothing short of amazing... Unfortunately, and through no fault of Monolith Soft, the Wii laughs at their dreams."

Xenoblade's graphics are really quite good... for a Wii game.
Is that still a compliment?

"I’m tired of Nintendo having these awesome franchises and brilliant developers and shafting them with an absolute garbage can of a system. I’m tired of seeing Mario relegated to kitschy ideas because there’s no horsepower under the Wii’s hood; I’m tired of seeing Link fighting through the Temple of Brown Textures and Jagged Edges; I’m tired of seeing games like Xenoblade Chronicles, games with a world vision that dwarfs the imagination and fills the mind with awe-inspiring jaw dropitude, get thrown under the bus by Nintendo insisting on Grandma Waggle Party IV as its core demographic."

Nintendo's strategy for the last few generations has been to produce underpowered hardware and seemingly ignore or deny modern conventions. The Wii is clearly inferior to the Xbox360 or the PS3, both in terms of graphical capability and image resolution. Xenoblade does what it can, but to see that game running on the Wii is to lament over what might have been. As Chris alludes, mouth animations when characters speak are primitive and off-putting, and the otherwise well-designed graphics suffer from having just a few polygons less than they deserve, and can only be enjoyed through the veil of the Wii's grainy resolution. If only there were an HD port of this game!

But then, what if it were made for an HD console? Who's to say it wouldn't have suffered from those same problems Final Fantasy XIII had? There are such high graphical expectations on the 360 and PS3, that anything less than the best is quickly criticized. Would Xenoblade's character models and environments have looked anything like this, had the game been designed from the ground up for another system? The game was made with one system's hardware in mind, and wishing for the image resolution of another may be folly. What game developer seriously makes a game for the PS3, with the goal of creating visuals that look only a little better than what's on the Wii?

Perhaps between the two extremes there rests a happy medium -- or, if this is the happy medium, would we recognize it? Those of us who demanded a different allocation of resources in the wake of FFXIII's graphics-mongering may have gotten what we wanted in Xenoblade, even if it is on a console we loathe. All things considered, Xenoblade still looks pretty good -- and if it ends up giving me all the things that FFXIII failed to deliver, then what have I really got to complain about?

April 2, 2012

Music Monday: Suite for Violin and Piano (Metroid)

Last week's feature was an arrange album by Samuel Ascher-Weiss, a.k.a. Shnabubula, and it was so good that I could almost just devote Music Monday to tracks from NES JAMS for the next three months or so. Despite my desire to highlight more of Shnabubula's amazing work, however, one of my goals for this segment is to maintain variety from week to week. So, my compromise is to show off another of Shnabubula's pieces, with a different tone than we heard in NES JAMS.

Suite for Violin and Piano, performed by Shnabubula and Gabriel Terracciano, is a medley featuring tracks from the Metroid Series. Clocking in at over ten minutes, this incredible piece proves to be an adventure as rich in atmosphere and tension as the games they honor.

Title: Suite for Violin and Piano
Game: Metroid (series)
Arranged by Shnabubula and Gabriel Terracciano

March 28, 2012

Case Closed: Sudeki

The phrase "Don't judge a book by its cover" also applies to the realm of video games. However, savvy marketers and designers know full well that consumers' expectations of, and interest in, a given product relies heavily on its exterior packaging. Research into what's popular with target demographics can be a valuable tool in promotion and advertising, but when that principle is taken too far, the results smack of desperation.

Video game box art, unfortunately, provides us with a bevy of demonstrations in how not to design product packaging. The imagery used on the front covers are carefully considered and composed to grab your attention and get you interested -- but precisely what marketers think will get you interested can be a pretty awkward and downright embarrassing notion, at times. Cover designers have to make assumptions about your age and gender, and what aspects of their game should be emphasized in order to capitalize on your possible buying habits. Naturally, covers vary from region to region, and there are examples of tasteful and attractive art as well as cheap, degrading exploitation. I can understand that companies are eager to play the odds and assume that the gamer in question is a young male -- but you can't target a specific demographic like that too narrowly without turning off other potential buyers.

It's often pretty interesting (and bizarre) to see how these concepts translate across box art for games released in both Japan and western countries. There can be some very different assumptions made about what design and stylistic choices will appeal to each region, and the contrasts range from subtle to drastic. In this premiere edition of Case Closed, we'll be looking at a classic example of these marketing machinations at work.

(Xbox, 2004)

Sudeki is apparently a rather terrible Action RPG, which I've managed to avoid. It's funny that the visual style and title might lead one to believe that this was a Japanese-made game, because it was actually developed in the UK by some company called "Climax." Hopefully, you can tell already which cover I prefer:

Western (Europe and North American) Cover Art

Japanese Cover Art

The Half-Naked, Blue-Haired Heroine

Seen from below, with breasts and hips/crotch area prominent. She's standing in a ridiculous pose that only serves to show off her body, reminiscent of something a stripper might do. She is looking down at the viewer, suggesting a kind of faux-confidence conveyed through sexualized dominance -- almost as if she might step out of the game box and straddle the young man she's lured across the game store with her doe-eyed stare. Girl power...?
She is important in the image because: she is enormous (taking up nearly 1/3 of the image area), and literally glowing.

Angled so that we see much of her from above. Her pose seems slightly more reserved about displaying so much of her body at once -- but don't get me wrong, she's still half-naked and her breasts are still prominent and central to the image. Her legs are significantly thinner. Her eyes are larger, and set in a more childlike face. Hair and headband are flicking about in the wind dramatically, in true anime fashion -- and she is holding a staff of some sort, indicating that she is indeed a character in a fantasy world and not just some throw-away spokesmodel on the front of a box for god-knows-what. In general, this version is subtley more amiable and submissive, closer to the trope of the traditional Japanese "ideal" woman, for better or worse.
She is important in the image because: while she is smaller than the western rendering, the composition of all the design elements bring her forward. Actual and conceptual lines, light, and color all lead the viewer's eye to her.

The Half-Naked Lady in Red

Of course, the breasts are prominent, with a great deal of her body on display in a stiff, straight-on pose. She stands in this generic stance that we are meant to assume is "combat-ready," I guess because she is clenching her fists, but in all honesty she may just as effectively be engaged in ballroom dancing. In any case, she seems very angry about something off-camera somewhere.
Her bladed fist weapons are large, shiny, and outfitted with exaggerated hooks, making them more like a comic-book superheroine's weapon of choice than a tool of finesse and speed.

Seen from the back, looking over her shoulder in a way that is rather vague but still prompts some imagination about what kind of character she is and how she carries herself. Mistrustful? Antisocial? Dismissive? Guarded? The fact that there are unknown possibilities at all, says something, and already begins fostering curiosity. Weapons are less shiny, and sized more appropriately for her.
As with the blue-haired girl, the latter image conveys a character, whereas the former image presents a body.

Red-Haired Swordsman

Second-largest in size, and looking incredibly angry or disgusted. Clearly, he is engaged in combat with some enemy who must be standing outside of his actual field of vision. Who fights like this? How is he prepared to give or receive any sort of attack, given this awkward pose? Why is he holding his sword in one hand, behind himself? What is he going to do, block incoming blows with his empty hand? If he actually swings that sword, he risks chopping the blue-haired girl in two.

Still looks pretty stressed, but in an intent or purposeful way, as if struggling to maintain discipline and composure in the heat of a frantic duel. He's featured less prominently in the composition, and less a symbol of the overpowering aggression that chokes the western cover.

Dude with the Green Glasses

What is that figure, way back there? Is that a person? Who cares, he's probably just some nerd. Besides, there are hot girls to gawk at! Am I right?

Featured just as prominently as the other characters, except of course for the main heroine. The glasses and nerdy gun contraption are a feature, not a flaw.

General Design Decisions

All the colours are obscenely saturated, and the background is a laughable explosion of light and energy. Some sort of interdimensional vortex in the sky appears to be highlighting the main character with a brilliant bolt of lightning, just in case you couldn't find her. Simultaneously, the background is still aglow from a recent nuclear blast.
All the characters are computer-generated 3D models, probably used in some of the game's cutscenes, just so they can show you up-front how "awesome" the graphics are in this game. The problem is, even though they're all clearly supposed to be inhabiting the same physical environment in the scene, their facial expressions and body language make no logical sense. They're all looking in different directions and reacting to radically different events. One looks to be challenging a hated rival to a fight, another is apparently already mid-battle and probably about to be struck in the spine by his out-of-sight opponent -- all while the girl in the middle happily stripteases for some ground-level camera, completely unfazed and oblivious to anything going on around her. Overall, this feels like a cut-and-paste job that was slapped together in all of ten minutes.
Also, hey, did you notice the title of the game? THE TITLE IS SUDEKI, IN CASE YOU DIDN'T NOTICE IT, THERE. WAS IT TOO SMALL FOR YOU?!!!

A 2D, hand-drawn, watercolor-style image crafted specifically for the front cover -- because box art is worth the time and effort, in and of itself. The variety of both bright and subdued colours makes for a balanced composition, and the background contains imagery of characters and locations represented in the game. It's drawn in an anime style, rather than some westerner's misguided imitation of an anime style. Overall, the look is much softer and more inviting. Say what you will about the content, the image composition itself is smartly-organized. Whoever made this knew what they were doing.
Rather than literally putting all the characters into some nonsensical situation together, it is clear that this image is an abstract collage of various faces and scenes.

Do I generally prefer Japanese cover art to western cover art? It tends to work out that way, though there are, of course, exceptions. We'll get to some more examples in later articles, but for now, I feel that Sudeki gives us a broad overview of how Japanese designers tend to view characters, and how to compose an image, in contrast with American or European designers. It's not that the Japanese way is always better -- that's just how it worked out in this example, in my opinion -- but the western versions do seem to lean more toward angry characters, aggressive moods, less elaborate compositions, and that mismatched cut-and-paste look.

As a side note, I recently found out there was a newly-drawn cover for the Japanese print of The Hunger Games:

I don't know what to think about that. Is that good? I mean, it's kind of awesome, but also kind of unnecessary.

March 26, 2012

Music Monday: Shnabubula's NES JAMS

I listen to a lot of fan remixes and arrangements, especially those coming out of Overclocked Remix, but there aren't a great deal of remix artists that I actually recognize by name. "Shnabubula" (Samuel Ascher-Weiss) is a name I knew I had seen a lot of, but I didn't really know his style or works from the name alone. After discovering his latest solo album, NES JAMS, however -- I'll be paying a lot more attention.

NES JAMS is a combination piano and chiptune collection, presenting creative interpretations of music from classic NES games like Double Dragon, Zelda, Mega Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Castlevania, to name a few. While there are a range of tones and styles at work, it generally hugs pretty closely to jazz and progressive ideals with an impressively frantic energy. I love it. I feel like this album was made for me.

The whole thing can be enjoyed, for free, on the album's release page, or it can by purchased for download at whatever price and format one chooses (I'm not sure if there is even a set minimum).

March 19, 2012

Music Monday: Lindsey Stirling's Zelda Medley

I didn't have anything in particular planned for this week, but I thought I should take a moment to point out a little something, just in case anybody missed it until now (hey, you never know).

Any Zelda maniacs out there have probably caught this at one point or another -- and if you haven't, shame on you!

March 13, 2012

There's Something About Mana

The Mana series has been without direction for some time, now. I don't say this with any particular relish or snark -- there was a time when the rumour of a new Mana game on the horizon would be one of the most enticing propositions a gamer could hope to meditate on. For a brief period in the Super Nintendo days, it seemed like the frolicking action-RPG Secret of Mana represented one of the pillars of the legendary Squaresoft of old -- a worthy contender, alongside the likes of Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. Certainly one of my favorite games, anyway.

The first of the series was a Gameboy title, Seiken Densetsu ("Legend of the Holy Sword"), known in North America as Final Fantasy Adventure (an erroneous and misleading title, most likely chosen as a shrewd marketing ploy). Out of necessity, it was a rather basic, bare-bones affair with cute, squatty sprites -- but in that simplicity was born the franchise's key appeal -- it skirted the line between stats-and-spells role-playing and hack-and-slash action, without ever passing too deeply into one territory or the other.

The Mana games legitimize the "Action RPG" as a concept, embracing the best of both worlds.
They distinguish themselves sharply from Zelda, which is often little more than
an action title with a fantasy backdrop and a few token nods toward character growth.

The hero gained a handful of weapons, a meager sampling of magic spells and special abilities, and once in a while an additional helper character to tag along tentatively. There were towns and dungeons to explore, experience levels and optional talent points to allocate into a stat of your choice -- but the hero only had four main stats to play with: Power, Wisdom, Stamina, and Will. It never got more complicated than that. Most of the time, the player was happily running around and whacking cute monsters with a sword or spell, not puzzling over convoluted plot arcs or min-maxing character builds.

That legacy continued over the next couple of games, the most popular of which is the SNES's direct follow-up Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2). Most elements of this game were a direct expansion of the trail blazed by the original, but taken to deeper levels of realization. The graphics were notably colorful and distinct, even among the most beautiful SNES games. Hiroki Kikuta's soundtrack was a breath of fresh air, incorporating styles and instruments not usually heard in traditional fantasy settings (when's the last time you heard a gamelan in a video game?). There were now three main protagonists -- the plucky brawler, built for physical combat; the artful healer and enchanter, capable of imbuing her team with helpful buffs; and the adept mage, wielder of destructive magic. A single player could easily control all three characters as a unified team, either by issuing commands from the menu or by swapping control directly between them at a moment's notice. Those lucky enough to have the SNES's Multitap accessory, and a couple extra controllers, could enjoy the adventure with three players simultaneously.

Even though its graphics are no less based on repeating tiles than any other 2D RPG of its day,
Secret of Mana still looks damn great, if you ask me.

Somewhere along the way, though, the series gradually lost its center and crumbled into what can only be called a rubble of disparate fragments -- each idea promising, perhaps, on their own -- but never cohering into anything resembling a unified and focused adventure. These days, the real "secret" of Mana is how to pick up the pieces and bring the series back to the glory of its heyday.

Essentially, the Mana games have become bogged-down with too many gimmicky diversions, over-complicated mechanics, arcane systems of item crafting and inventory management, and just an overall confusion of what the rules of its world are from game to game. It's gotten to a point where picking up a new Mana title is like drawing a few cards randomly from a deck and hoping for a full-house -- there's always the hope that it might happen, but more than likely you'll just wind up with a random, inarticulate jumble.

As early as Seiken Densetsu 3, which only saw official release in Japan (but enjoyed a comprehensive fan translation via emulation), the series began to exhibit shades of what was to come. At its core, the gameplay was mostly the same as Secret's, but things grew rapidly more complex. From the first moments, players had to choose three of six playable characters to form their party -- some tough physical fighters, others more fragile and suited to magery. However, the ins and outs of each character's potential weren't made abundantly clear at the outset, and it was more than possible to choose an unsuitably imbalanced party, with no way to correct your choice.
Similarly unforgiving in this regard was the system for upgrading your character class -- each character could choose to graduate to a new class at set experience levels, but the choice was equally as blind and irreversible. If you decided you didn't like the new abilities of the class you had chosen, there was no going back.

Design decisions like these rapidly snowballed from this point on. Transparency and user-friendly ideals were largely sacrificed in favour of convoluted, trial-and-error mechanics that forced the player into guesswork and leaps of faith. Legend of Mana, the PS1 follow-up, represents the height of ridiculousness in this regard. There were countless item-crafting and weapon-forging endeavours to take part in, fruits and vegetables to grow, pets to feed and develop, robotic golems to build, and secret techniques to train. No single aspect of these systems are necessarily a problem on their own -- but combined, they form a choking fog that overwhelms and confounds the player. The game is just too damned mysterious for its own good, and seems to have no real stake in helping the player learn just what the heck is going on. Which fruit is better to temper a sword with -- an Apricat, or a Peach Puppy? Why am I even asking this question?

Legend of Mana is uncommonly gorgeous to look at and listen to, but it's too busy trying to be the next Alice in Wonderland. It never stops to let the player get absorbed and involved, or explain how any of its myriad stories are each important to a greater whole.

I couldn't even make sense of the plot, half the time. I would finish a quest, and stare in bewilderment. I didn't know what exactly had happened, why I did anything, or how any of the individual quests came together to form anything resembling an overarching plot. One technically guides a main "character" through a cavalcade of fantastical quests, but that character never serves as an actual protagonist that attains a degree of importance or influence. Even the world itself, literally, didn't come together -- you revealed each area separately by finding artifacts and choosing where to place them on your map, spawning a new location there. Where you placed each location and what surrounded it dictated what manner of shops and events might appear -- and of course, the rhyme and reason of this map is never explained, and your choices can never be undone. The very fact that it's a "world map" at all is a cruel deception, since each location exists in complete isolation and you can never walk from one place to another -- you just exit to the "map" menu, and select a new stage to access. It really distances the player from the setting, preventing one from enjoying the game on anything deeper than a surface level.

At times, I failed to understand what characters were supposed to be. The graphics were clear enough -- hand-painted, watercolor environments, and incredibly creative and whimsical designs gave Legend of Mana an identity all its own. However, at times, that whimsy went a touch too far and I honestly couldn't tell what I was looking at. Case in point: this guy, Nunuzac, is the head of the Academy of Magic. He is a circle. As in, the shape. Nunuzac is a flying, geometric abstraction, with what looks like a pseudo-cubist face hidden among its patterning. Now, you or I might think it odd that an important figure be a disembodied circle instead of a flesh-and-blood person -- but no character in the game seems to bring up the matter in conversation, or even acknowledge it as noteworthy. Are they not seeing what I'm seeing? It's incredibly frustrating and disorienting, when there's no sense of what's "normal" in a game's world -- how am I supposed to identify when something "abnormal" happens?

Oh. Okay, then.

I distinctly remember playing through this game with a friend, and remarking, half-jokingly: "This is not a game. It makes no sense. I don't know what Legend of Mana is, but it is not a video game. It's... just a weird thing, that you do."

After that, the Mana games got a little less nonsensical, but no less uncomfortable and contrived. Sword of Mana was actually a Gameboy Advance remake of the first game, but was slow and sluggish in both play control and story. It was also bloated by Legend of Mana-style item-crafting chores, just to pad the game clock. From then onward, I actually haven't touched the series, but I don't hear good things.

Children of Mana is reportedly a bland, monotonous dungeon crawler on the Nintendo DS.

Dawn of Mana had the audacity not only to call itself Seiken Densetsu 4 in Japan, but also to use manipulative promotional imagery eerily similar to that of Secret of Mana's iconic Mana Tree artwork --implying that this would finally be the more focused, classic action RPG fans had been waiting for. Reviews rated the game as being completely terrible, based around a shoddy camera, unenjoyable combat -- and an annoying system where all your stats and abilities reset to Level 1 at the end of each chapter, stamping out any potential sense of character progress. It was also centered around grabbing enemies and throwing them into obstacles or each other, thus setting them in a panicked, more vulnerable state -- a gimmick which may have looked good on paper, but really wasn't what anyone asked for.

The last game was Heroes of Mana, again on DS -- it's a Real-Time Strategy title like Starcraft, where you command multiple units in large-scale battles and manage resources. Is this what former fans of the series want to see? Probably not. Does a successful series need to resort to constant, radical changes to its formula in an attempt to find an audience? I doubt it. I'm not so sure the Mana games are doing all that well, and given what's been produced lately, that should come as no surprise.

What may come as a surprise, though, is how I would humbly suggest going about revitalizing the franchise and making it relevant again. For the longest time, gamers who still care about the series have been frustrated over the lack of a return to form. Like a number of people, I'd love to see a new, straightforward, honest-to-goodness action RPG like Secret of Mana -- however, I've become convinced that this just isn't ever going to happen. The people in charge of Mana have tried to reinvent the wheel so many times that they've forgotten that wheels ultimately have to fit within a functioning vehicle. If they really want to turn Mana into a game where you devote your time into inventory management, growing weird fruits shaped like animals, forging equipment, gathering pets, and juggling various other tasks between adventures, I say go for it -- make an MMORPG. Seriously.

Who doesn't want to run around in a colorful fantasy world and beat up adorable animals?
Isn't that what most MMOs are about, anyway?

The Mana universe would make for a terrific MMO.

Sure, it's easy to be cynical and criticize the massively-multiplayer genre as being an already over-crowded market. A Mana MMO would certainly be a high-risk venture -- but on the other hand, MMOs have more widespread appeal now than they ever have, and it's important to strike while the iron's hot. That goes not just for the online RPG genre, but for the Mana brand as well. People still remember the Mana series with fondness, and capitalizing on that nostalgia could be an extremely effective way to generate interest in a new game that embraces what enamoured gamers in the first place. The series has laid a foundation of colorful characters, lighthearted aesthetics, and a timeless mythos that would serve as an inviting atmosphere for countless online adventures.

It's Got the Look

Cute, colorful graphics that don't take themselves too seriously suit online games perfectly. They appeal to a wide audience and age range, and a well-designed and colored cartoon-like style is easier to render accurately with underpowered hardware specs than gritty realism. Similarly, since MMORPGs are long-term investments, how a game's visuals will age over the years is a crucial consideration. Look at the most popular MMO, World of Warcraft -- from an objective standpoint, a lot of the graphics are technically pretty terrible. But, because it's so smartly designed under a unifying, colorful, almost cartoonish aesthetic, the suspension of disbelief is made far easier, and at times it does still impress.
Similarly, look at the Gamecube's Zelda title, Wind Waker -- its cell-shaded style masks its low polygon count. The graphics look exactly as they were meant to, and it will probably always look about as good as it does right now. On the flip side, the harder a game strives for realism, the sooner it begins to look dated.
The Mana series has always been bright and colorful, and it's always looked great. With its simple character designs, it would be easy to translate that look in a 3D space completely intact.

The World is Just Waiting to be Populated

It's not difficult to imagine ways that the concepts of the Mana universe might adapt to a persistent, online world. A lot of the environments in Secret of Mana -- towns, open fields, forests, mountains and cavern entrances -- all linked together and were on the same scale, creating the illusion of grand, seamless areas much like the interconnected zones that make World of Warcraft's landscapes so believable. It may not sound like such a big deal now, but Mana was already doing back then what even some modern games fail to do now. There are even some current MMOs that still divide their world into small, isolated little chunks that must be loaded separately. It really breaks the illusion -- one of the best things about participating in a massively-multiplayer world is knowing that everything around you is really there, and what you see off in the distance can actually be traveled to and explored.

The series has a variety of other tricks it's used over the years, to give its settings animation and life. Seiken Densetsu 3 introduced alternations between day and night, and later games actually referred to specific "days" of the game's weekly cycle -- attributing each in-game "day" to one of the elemental spirits. This elemental "day" idea would fit perfectly with real-world days of the week, affecting how people think about when they play. Perhaps Tuesday in the real world could be "Undine's Day," and on that day certain water-related spells, characters, and items could receive a minor benefit. Certain crops might grow faster on a particular day. If the player's character has chosen to affiliate with a particular elemental, they could receive an XP or stat buff on their respective day. It could be subtle or drastic, but little touches like that tie the game's lore to the real world of the player, giving concrete significance to a concept of time that didn't really make a lot of practical sense in a single-player adventure.

The Mana Tree, perhaps the only major story point that remained constant throughout the whole series, is basically the tree of life -- it invigorates the world, fills it with energy and magic, but also represents the delicate balance of nature. There are usually some kind of villainous elements in each game -- an evil empire, or some other -- who are trying to capture and harness that power for their own greedy ends. That's about what the plot of each game ultimately boils down to, and it's a story that anyone can understand, particularly if the Mana Tree is physically made into a crucial and visible influence in one's world. The way I see it, the Mana Tree could be this enormous, towering presence smack in the centre of the map, overlooking all nations, and visible on the horizon even from half the world away. Its roots could jut out of the landscape here and there, for miles out -- and the zones directly adjacent to it may be cast in its shadow, depending on the sun's place in the sky. It can be a huge, universal entity -- a landmark signifying your physical place in the world, and something that everyone is always made aware of in the background of their day-to-day questing.

The intricacy of a detailed plot has never been one of the series' strong points, but you don't need a textbook of lore to understand the sacred significance of the Mana Tree.

The concept of "Mana" as a spiritual energy innate in all things could give an MMO some personality to distinguish itself from other games, acting as a globally-shared resource with a carefully balanced economy. For example, in addition to a selection of standard-issue spells and skills, each player might also have access to a few limited-use-per-day abilities or effects that consume Mana power. However, Mana isn't a personal stash of power designated to your character -- it's drained from one global, shared pool. Doing certain daily quests or devoting time and resources to special tasks works to replenish the world's supply of Mana, and your character's balance of seeding and leeching this resource is constantly recorded. Your give-and-take ratio will naturally fluctuate up and down as situations dictate, but severe imbalances may have increasingly dramatic effects. Give more than you take, and you could see temporary boosts to your character's effectiveness and tentative access to certain mounts or other visible signs of prestige -- but leech too much without contributing, and a halt on your access to Mana may be inflicted, along with suitable downgrades and various stains upon your reputation.
Methods of public transit or teleportation, exclusive weapon and armor enhancements, and other public amenities in major cities may also require that the total amount of Mana be at a certain quantity. So, if a much sought-after perk isn't available in town, there will be no mystery about who's to blame.

The Seeds Have Been Planted

Almost no MMORPGs feature turn-based, menu-driven battles. Nearly everything that takes place is happening in real-time, and so even the most by-the-numbers gear checks and battles of attrition will still feature some degree of moving around, placing your character in just the right spot relative to the enemy, avoiding area-of-effect attacks, or otherwise not standing in fire. The combat in Mana games were built around about the same balance of stats and levels versus timing and positioning, and it's not much of a stretch to adapt that play style to what goes on in an online environment. Mana curiously featured the MMO-staple concept of enforced cooldown periods between attacks -- the original Gameboy title prevented you from using your special move until a bar filled, and Secret of Mana actually made you wait between successive basic strikes before you could again use your weapon at 100% power.

The roster of magic includes everything from healing to elemental damage spells; from character and weapon-enhancing buffs to enemy-weakening status effects; from damage-over-time poisons and energy drains to debilitating stuns and knockdown moves -- basically, all the stuff that's since become the meat and potatoes of the online RPG genre.

An online community of guilds working as a team, and a supply-and-demand free market economy, is actually a place where all those item-crafting professions I previously complained about would finally make sense. It's very common for an MMORPG to encourage side professions and trades for players to work on, such as farming natural resources or creating useful items and equipment. These things weren't any fun in Legend of Mana, because it had a single player investing significant time and effort to perform every job. I think these crafting professions and side jobs are most interesting when no one person is responsible for every job -- it's the interplay and interdependence of a whole community that makes any of it relevant or important. Anything you can make or find is going to be valuable, in the right hands. Even an eggplant that looks like a whale will find a buyer in a public auction.

I don't know whose garden this is from,
but I'm sure we can grind it into a fine potion.

Mana's quirky personality made the game instantly recognizable among all other games, due largely in part to a recurring roster of well-animated, mascot-like monsters. Valleys, forests, and dungeons were populated by the hare-like rabites, hopping chess knights, creepily-grinning slime blobs, hedgehogs, lycanthrope martial arts masters, explosive fungoid mushbooms, wicked jack-o-lanterns, and helmet-clad duck soldiers. Each monster type had its own behaviours and tactics -- such as the Sleep Flower which disguised itself as a harmless, garden variety plant until you got in range of its Sleep spells; or the roguish rodent Chobin Hoods who attacked from a distance with their bow and arrows. Juxtapose this amusing menagerie with the addictive success of Pokémon, or the lengths "ranger" characters go to in tracking down a rare animal companion. Even World of Warcraft has a mini-game planned for its next expansion, which lets players level-up their special non-combat pets and pit them against each other in one-on-one brawls. People love to be able to collect a variety of helper pets, so why not let everyone have one?
In the Mana MMO, defeating most monsters in the wild presents a chance to tame them as your own pet. Each character can have many pets, but only one can be active at a time -- the result of which is that you have a little helper, boosting your damage output or serving some other useful function depending on your needs and character build. No one pet will be overpowered or game-breaking, and managing them will be very simple. The pet basically follows you around, and behaves according to a simple AI that attacks what you're attacking and sometimes uses a special ability. A few examples:

Rabite is a small, timid creature which populates low-level zones and is easy to tame. He hops about behind you, occasionally sneaking around behind your foe to deliver a bite or two.

Buzz Bee hovers above the ground and is agile enough to avoid a lot of direct attacks. It attacks frequently, and sometimes uses a poison sting to inflict added damage over time to its target.

The Dark Knight is a tough customer, but if you can defeat enough of them, one may be persuaded to join you. His heavy armor lets him take more hits than most companions, and he can swing his morning star around him to strike multiple foes and garner a lot of enemy attention. Couldn't serve as a dedicated tank in a dungeon's boss battles, but would certainly help a cloth-wearing mage survive while out questing.

Slimes don't dish out a lot of damage on their own, but have an odd habit of dividing into multiple copies of themselves.

The wild Mushboom is an explosive fellow -- he tends to release a concussive burst of spores, temporarily knocking out any close-quarters enemies.

Of course, getting all the details down would be a tricky thing. Creating a full-fledged MMORPG is no small feat, and it may be that Square-Enix is just not up for the task, considering the incidents surrounding Final Fantasy XIV's disastrous launch. But, anyone who remembers the fun of a multiplayer Secret of Mana session back on the SNES can see that an online venture which captures and adapts that gameplay properly could be what finally saves this series from oblivion. The fact is, people out there still remember these games and do care when they screw themselves up. At its core, Mana is a fun experience -- it's just picked up a few too many wonky features and complications for its own good, if it's to remain a single-player game. Personally, I'd want to play this imaginary Mana MMO, over what the series has been doing with itself recently.

And who wouldn't want to fly into town, showing off their flying Flammie mount?

Flammie: The original, summonable mount

March 12, 2012

Music Monday: Solstice

Today, for the first time, I heard the title theme from the 1990 NES game Solstice: The Quest for the Staff of Demnos, My jaw dropped. It couldn't believe this was music from an actual NES game -- I mean, it's clearly made up of the sorts of sounds and instruments an NES is capable of producing, but stylistically speaking it doesn't even sound like something created for a video game. This is a stimulating, dynamic piece that I'd expect to hear from a progressive rock band -- not the title screen of a little-known puzzle-adventure on the Nintendo.

Why have I never heard of this piece, until now? Why have I never heard of this amazing composer, Tim Follin? I only stumbled upon this track by chance, catching an old November 2010 episode of The Legacy Music Hour about experimental game music. I almost feel embarrassed for being completely oblivious about this music until now. I actually thought I probably knew most of the good stuff out there, at least as far as retro gaming was concerned -- and now, the rug has been swept out from under me. What other marvels are out there, which I have yet to discover?

Title: Title Theme
Game: Solstice: The Quest for the Staff of Demnos (released 1990, NES)
Composer: Tim Follin

March 5, 2012

Music Monday: Clockwork

Okay, let's make this short and sweet. This week, we've got a great track from Akumajou Dracula Tribute Vol. 1, a 2011 arrange album of music from throughout the Castlevania series.

Arrangements of Castlevania music really run the gamut from incredible to terrible, but perhaps that's only because there's such a wealth of it out there, and it's been done in just about every style one could hope for.

Anyway, this one's from the NES classic, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. Enjoy!

Title: Clockwork
Game: Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse (released in September 1990 for NES in North America)
Album: Akumajou Dracula Tribute, Vol. 1
Arranged by Aki Hata

February 27, 2012

Music Monday: Dajil

It's odd, how I often hear talk about what an incredible epic Xenogears was back in the Playstation era -- and how full of marvelous character Yasunori Mitsuda's soundtrack was in 1998 -- yet, rarely do I ever hear mention of Creid, its excellent arrange album. Perhaps only a scant few have ever heard of it, or maybe it just doesn't resonate with many folks as much as it does with me. However, rarely does a return to a classic, well-known soundtrack result in an album that expounds, expands, and explores the original material quite so colorfully as Creid.

Title: Dajil
Game: Xenogears (released 1998, Playstation)
Album: Creid
Composer: Yasunori Mitsuda

February 22, 2012

We Won! The Last Story to be Released in North America

Nintendo officially announced today that The Last Story will indeed see release in North America, after all. Whether this has been a direct result of grass-roots internet movement Operation Rainfall remains a mystery -- but I'm sure it played a part in the decision, and news coverage of the movement was integral in spreading awareness.

The Last Story, for those who don't know, is a Japanese RPG developed by Mistwalker, which is helmed by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. It's garnered a lot of praise, although until now it was doubtful whether the game would be available outside of Japan and Europe. Today's news is particularly exciting for fans of Japanese-style RPGs, myself included -- the genre could arguably use a shot in the arm, and both The Last Story and the similarly-embattled title Xenoblade Chronicles look like they're going to provide that.