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