Friday, September 5, 2014

Gaming Memories 9: We Interrupt These Parasites

Gaming Memories 8:
We Interrupt These Parasites to Bring You God.

The Survival Horror genre witnessed a huge surge of interest due to the original Resident Evil.  This generated enough sales that other companies started to get in on the popularity.  One of those companies happened to be the hugely successful Squaresoft.  At a time when they were branching beyond RPG's, Squaresoft created their own version of a Resident Evil clone that took the shape of Parasite Eve.  I decided I wanted to get this game, and after a few months of it being out, I did.

I had a cousin that I played a lot of the PS1 era with.  Almost weekly I'd head over to his place and we'd play whatever we had at the time, or even just fire up the old SNES and play some games of the past.  This cousin was always NUTS for things to do with horror or horror movies.  Thing is, their home was always full of younger brothers, nephews and nieces, so it is not the "best" place to try and be immersed into a game.  So I set it up that the day I get Parasite Eve, I have the cousin over so we can play a marathon session of it.  All things go according to plan, I get the game, we get to my place, and turn off all the lights and we get ready to play.

And then I crack open the case and find a demo disc.

I have this thing... when I get a game, I like to build the anticipation... I guess?  I do not know.  Its way worse now, I will sometimes go weeks without starting a game I've bought.  I have to get in the mood to start a game.  Anyway, it was not so worse back then.  A demo disc was the only way we had back then to see actual video footage of new games.  In a way, its like anticipating movie trailers before the big blockbuster you've waited 2 years to watch.  Anyways, my cousin hated this bullshit, and boy did he have the perfect storm of delays hit...

"Oh this is a game demo.  Hey, I know you're waiting to watch this game you really really want to see, but let's just at least watch the opening for this X.. zee,  this Xenogears, it looks like it has a robot".  I had never even read a preview about the game, knew nothing of it.

Yep.  Xenogears.  My most favorite game of all time.  I used to think every 4 years something would come out to top my last favorite game of all time.  Nope.  Still going strong.  Anyway, so we watch this intro thing and it ends with "You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"You Shall Be As Gods"

And I flip my shit.  I make him wait the hour or so it takes me to finish the demo because now I can give less than 2 shits about Parasite Eve, I just played what could be the most amazing "holy shit!" demo of a game I've ever played.

We did end up putting about 4 hours on Parasite Eve that day.  I even let him play the majority of time we put in(I knew i'd be starting over later before I finished it).  I really really liked Parasite Eve when I played it, its a wonderful game.  But I'll never forget that hurt puppy dog look on his face when I said "ok, I can't just stop at the opening cinematic... I'm playing the demo."

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Experience Points 04: A Trilogy(Quadrilogy) Forgotten

Experience Points 04: Side Story Special
The Gaia/Blazer/Creation "Series"

The state of RPG's in North America was rather strange in the early 1990's.  While Squaresoft and some other companies were having huge success in this region, it seemed like Enix(not yet a part of Square) could not seem to find any real success here.  This lead sometimes to a smaller release in Europe of a title they had gone to the trouble of translating, but not sure about spending the money to market it in the busy North American store front.

Here in the West, there is a set of games that are commonly referred to as "The Gaia" series.  Illusion of Gaia was a popular game among my friends of this time as it was comparable to Secret of Mana and higher quality than Secret of Evermore.  Because of the large audience, and copious amounts of advertising in magmazines, Illusion of Gaia is the game that the series is defined under even though it was not the start.  The start was a game called Soul Blazer, while the end of the SNES trilogy was Terranigma(kind of, more on that later).  Both of those last 2 were sold only in the Euro market, never released here.  A lot of people, even Illusion of Gaia fans, do not realize it is part of a larger series of games.

Quintet was Enix's "go to" developer near the early days of the SNES.  They started with the superb Actraiser, an action side scroller that managed to incorporate "Sim City" like game play, at least that's what I called it back when it was new.  Now we would say it has Real-time Strategy elements.  They would go on to make many games in the SNES era, and trickle out  a few in later consoles.  Their height for sure was the SNES.

Soul Blazer is the least amazing looking of the 3, and I found it to be a little stiff, but it probably has my favorite gameplay.  In Soul Blazer you are given the task of finding and liberating a soul that is important to an area, and after liberating it, you start seeing the town grow and mature over time.  Its concept is sort of in the same vein as Actraiser, and indeed some say the games are simpley "Quintet" games, with common themes among all of them instead of being a well defined trilogy.

Illusion of Gaia was made a bit differently than most action RPG's.  There is a linearity to it, leaving previously visited areas of the game unreachable for the rest of the game, this gets rid of the traditional "sandbox" style of gameplay that is expected with this genre.  It uses multiple characters with different skills and instead of levels you get bonuses as you complete content fully in the game.

The masterpiece of the series(and though I've not played Robotrek) and Quintet's crowning achievement was Terranigma.  Again the protagonist rescues a dying world that has been devastated by a war between 2 gods, and instead of rescuing towns like in Soul Blazer, you're reviving entire sections of a world.  Until I saw the "chip" enhanced games Tales of Phantasia and Star Ocean, I chose Terranigma as the most impressive 2-D achievement on the SNES, the game is beautiful.

The "series" has its own Enigma, one I had not realized despite it being a personal favorite of mine.  There is a game called Granstream Saga, a game I rented and later had to own myself.  In the early days of the Playstation, many games were 3-D-kinda-sorta, but not.  One of the first fully polygon RPG's I played was Granstream Saga, and it had beautiful anime cutscenes to help the story along.  This game was also made by Quintet, and carries with it a lot of the re-occurring themes, NPC's, areas, and stylings of the "Gaia Series".  Is it a part of the series?  I leave that up to you.  I am personally on the fence on if it is or not.

If you are a fan of overhead Legend of Zelda and Secret of Mana games, this series is a must play.  While they fall short at various points to being as good as those series, they all have enough great gameplay and awe inspiring(for the era) sequences.  By the time you get to Terranigma, they are doing some things that just aren't seen in some games, and by then were pros at using the hardware.  The Trilogy is only a loose one, so you do not need to start at the beginning, you can choose where you want to start and go from there.  Sometimes the "2nd tier" of a genre gets thrown to the wayside because the "best" is a foregone conclusion, but unfortunately this close mindedness can have missing some incredible games.  Give them a shot.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Gaming Memories 8: My Baseball Game

Gaming Memories 8: My Baseball Game

Three big things coincided with my life in the early 90's.  First, the Atlanta Braves became one of the best teams in history(with what might be the best pitching rotation in history).  Second, I began playing little league ball(I sucked), and 3rd, I finally found the baseball game that I enjoyed playing the most.

I had been through all the baseball games I could rent, and since baseball was huge in the south, there was a lot of options because they brought in money to the rental stores.  There was Backyard Baseball, Tony Larussa Baseball, Tommy Lasorda Baseball, RBI Baseball.  My favorite that I felt got batting, pitching, and field play all "right" was Super Bases Loaded on the SNES by Jaleco.  Most games got pitching or batting good, but hardly ever both, and almost all exclusively had real shitty field control.  With Super Bases Loaded behind the pitcher view, it allowed both the pitcher and the batter to have unobstructed views of what was going on.  Sure, later the games like Sega's World Series Baseball would do it even better, but that was several years away.

The defining feature about this game that keeps it staying in my memories to this day was that they never got the license to use Major League Baseball teams or members.  Yep, all the teams and all the players were made up.  Notice Ryne Sanberg's non-logo cap on the front cover! Usually I would hate this.  I was a stickler for "realism" when it came to my baseball games.  It could be a fun game(as Backyard Baseball was), but because it was cartoonic, I did not stick with it.  So why did I still vote Super Bases Loaded as my favorite of all time?  Create-a-Team.

I never got to play baseball at a higher level, I pretty much sucked so bad I gave up even dreaming of doing it well.  But for a few days in the early 90's, my little league team got to play in giant stadiums and throw 90+ miles per hour pitches and hit 400+ foot line drive home runs.  I'm really thinking of opening my box of little league memorabilia and seeing if I still have a roster list of all the players, maybe its time for the team to come out of retirement.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Experience Points 03: OUTWest 90-93

Experience Points 03: Once Upon a Time in the West

The RPG scene in the West in the 1980's was transcendental.  The start of JRPG's is rooted firmly in Ultima and Wizardry, influenced by Dungeons and Dragons, and fed by J. R. R. Tolkien.  The Western RPG scene of the early 90's has largely been... forgotten.  In Japan, the descendants of Ultima's overhead movement style were reigning supreme with Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest(Warrior) adopting this style.  In the West, at this time, it was Wizardry's first person dungeon experience that took hold.

By this era, we are getting into the 2nd and 3rd generation of the Wizardry descendants.  Earlier titles practically required you to have a sheet of graph paper and a notebook to write down important information and map data while you played.  Popular releases in the Might and Magic series were released in this time, but Eye of the Beholder is one of the standout titles of this era that was ported to other systems such as the SNES.  Many consider it the pinnacle of the style in its era.  It used the multiple window view to have first person, tactical, and cutscene presentation.  It also used the Dungeons and Dragons license to base its gameplay on.  The Nintendo Entertrainment System also got a pretty popular title in this genre with the release of Swords and Serpents, a very scaled down version of this type of gameplay.

That is not to say that non-First person RPG's did not have some big releases.  Ultima 6 is arguably one of the biggest overhauls to PC RPG's outside of transitioning to 3D.  Its detailed overhead graphics caused many of its competitors to look dated and go back to the drawing board.  With Ultima 6, Ultima would once again redefine a genre as its lineage would lead to Isometric games such as Diablo and Baldur's Gate in the years to come.  The "Gold Box" set of games were in full swing as well.  They began in 1988 with Pool of Radiance, but in this era that were more than 8 titles using the game engine to create adventures with the Dungeons and Dragon licenses and various worlds including Forgotten Realms, DragonLance, and Dark Sun.  They took their influence from the Ultima line of RPG's.  Arguably the most important title in the series was what many consider the first full featured, graphic MMORPG: Neverwinter.  A game that began in 1991, and allowed online users of America Online to play and communicate together in a shared world.

Adventure games were entering their hey day near the end of this era.  Adventure games relied on puzzle and mouse manipulation, combined many times with animation or illustration, to achieve its narrative.  Some of them started adding statistics giving it more of an RPG feel.  Quest for Glory was perhaps the most successful of this combination.  Some consider the King's Quest series of adventures to also be an RPG, and had a couple of sequels in this time as well.  King's Quest VI was considered a watershed and makes the lists of "greatest games of all time" for many critics.

Ultimately in the end, it was the popularity of JRPG's in the West that lead to the downfall of the Wizardry line of RPG's being popular here.  Even with new additions like mapping systems and semi-action based combat, the first person dungeon crawl would diminish and become archaic.  Some say that the First Person Shooter contributed their own to the demise, making the clunky Wizardry based movement look very old and dated as well.  If you were a fan of this era of game you should check out what was heralded as the "revival" of the style titled "Grimrock".

The turn based Ultima based series soon came to a similar end, as the poularity of Ultima 6 lead to overhead progeny, and yet again turn based combat seemed old and clunky as PC's got fast enough for real time combat styles.  The PC RPG area just became outpaced by technology and the popularity of newer styles of gameplay lead to the RPG's of this era to be put by the wayside, and their un-user friendly gameplay limited by earlier technology does not make them easy to pick up and play today by newer generations.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Experience Points: 02 Japan 90-93

Experience Points: 02 Meanwhile in Japan 1990-1993
(Experience Points: Prime 90-93 post here)

One of the things you have to realize when we talk about RPG's from Japan is that their release schedules are extremely fast in their homeland.  While we have to have translations and deals made with publishers and sometimes marketing and store shelf negotiations, Japan is still making the games.  During these years, a new Final Fantasy was a once in a 3-4 year event, something that was celebrated by the gaming community as a milestone.  In Japan, they were getting them almost yearly.  In this era, a few new big franchises would get their start, but we would not see them for a decade, and in some cases 2.

Speaking of Final Fantasy games, Japan had 3 titles get released during this time.  I already talked about Final Fantasy IV(2) in the American section, but Japan also got Final Fantasy 3 for the Nintendo Entertainment System, and before the era was over they also got Final Fantasy 5.  These games were actually sort of similar.  In the pre-7 days, the odd Final Fantasy games were their own sort of sub-genre, using classes changes and the ability to customize your parties.  Final Fantasy 1, 3 and 5 all follow this trend of having a small cast that you keep through most of the game, and allowing you to choose how the cast fights by changing or choosing their "class".  Final Fantasy 2, 4, and 6 all had a very large cast of characters, and their abilities were set so that to change how your party fought, you changed the characters that made up your group.  There are a couple of reasons we never did not get a quick translation and import of the games here in the West.  First, the class change systems were thought too complex for our little Western minds, second, Final Fantasy 3 in particular was seen as a ripoff of Dragon Warrior 3, and Final Fantasy 5 was not seen as a large enough "leap" in style and content; they assumed we would be bored of the "same old same old".

Other JRPG's of the era include those in the Megami Tensei franchise.  This series is known for its multiple releases and spinoffs a year.  Many times the spinoffs propel the franchise to even greater fame, one of the few franchises that actually thrives off spinoffs.   The original, Digtial Devil Story: Megami Tensei, got its sequel in this era.  The spinoff Shin Megami Tensei started its run, and grew more popular than the original series.  On the Gameboy, Megami Tensei: Last Bible parts 1 AND 2 were released.  Dragon Quest became a culture phenom in Japan with part 3, but that ended a trilogy.  So the new trilogy got started with Dragon Warrior 4 AND 5 getting releases in this span of 3 years.  While we got 4, we never got 5 till WAY later, which is a shame because many consider it the best.  As you can tell by the box art, the beloved of Japan Akira Toriyama, and animator of Dragon Ball Z, did the art for the series.

On the strategy RPG side of things, Langrisser was very popular, as you could read in the "Prime" post earlier.  Shining Force got parts 1, 2 and its game gear versions released well before we got them here.  Albert Odyssey was released, which we would only see a Saturn installment, but never the first 2 from the SNES.  Two notable Tactical RPG's that would take a while for the West to get were Fire Emblem and Super Robot Wars.  Fire Emblem became a Nintendo hallmark series in Japan, but it would take over half a dozen titles before we would get one.  It is sort of a Langrisser-lite, being a bit less complex.  Like Shining Force though, they focused on party members having personality and inter-personal drama as well as the political intrigue of other tactical games.  Super Robot Wars was the start of a franchise that pitted popular mecha anime from television and movies in tactical battles.  The copyright concerns in North America are the reason we would never see any of these original titles, it would not be until they made completely original games for the Gameboy Advance that we would get any of the titles.  The series received one title per Nintendo Console in these 3 years; one for gameboy, one for the NES, and one for the SNES.

This is not even the tip of the iceberg for RPG's in Japan.  These are just the ones that are more relevant to Western audiences.  There are dozens whose franchises we still have never seen; and even a Record of Lodoss War series of games.  Some say we did not miss out on much, as the word "churned" is used to describe the glut of average and non-quality RPG's left in Japan in this era, still, there is a lot there that is still stuck that would be worth having.  With Megami Tensei replacing Final Fantasy as the "can't wait for the great sequel", it would serve to have the series' "missing" parts brought to us.

Next up for Experience points we take a look at the kind of RPG's that were popular and made by Western developers.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Gaming Memories 07: Dragon Pack-ins

Gaming Memories 07: Dragon Pack-ins

I have a soft spot for physical editions of games, especially ones that have a ton of pack-ins with them.  I think the first time I felt fully immersed in a game was with Dragon Warrior for the Nintendo Entertainment System.  I had played it at my cousin's house at a time when I had not yet gotten into Dungeons or Dragons, or even after 2nd Grade when my love of knowing things really started.  So I spent a while trying to figure out how this "chain mail" worked, and how I could send it to other towns in the game.  I decided it was probably a bad luck thing, like a chain letter, and gave up trying.

Anyway, probably a year or so later, my best friend from school got a Nintendo Power subscription, which came with a copy of Dragon Warrior.  This promotion was actually responsible for a lot of my peer's introduction into RPG's.  Well, he sold his copy to me before he even got it, and made back his magazine subscription money.

So this edition of Dragon Warrior came with all sorts of pack ins and goodies to it that really changed my perception of the game.  First off, a picture of chainmail was right there in the booklet, it was armor, duh.  But there was also great pictures of shields, swords and in game items.  There were posters of these things and also grand maps of the world, and maps of the dungeons.  I actually memorized the dungeons by directions in the dark lol  It was "hold down until you bump a wall, then go right till you bump a wall, now head down until you bump a wall again, and stairs".  Made total sense to me as a kid, and saved torches lol

I still have all this stuff, though the maps are not in good condition, as I once had it taped to my wall like a poster.  For long times I would imagine myself with Erdrick's sword, and artbooks of various games are something I enjoy looking at(especially the WoW artbook and FF9's artbook).  It would not be till Final Fantasy 12 that I would earn Erdrick's sword again.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Experience Points: 01 Prime 90-93

Experience Points: 01 Prime 90-93

Dawn of the 16 Bit

At the dawn of the 16-bit era the RPG was still a very niche market.  If you had asked anyone I knew what RPG games there were at the time, they'd look at you blankly as the term was more used in PC-gaming circles.  When looking at this early 16 bit era, we see Final Fantasy IV(2 US) get released and set the tone for the entire generation of RPG's.  Its hard to overstate its importance in this era, and can easily be compared to Final Fantasy 7 in opening the doors wider to more releases.  The majority of the RPG's to come in this era only come to NA/Euro after the success of Final Fantasy IV.  These include:
-the interesting, yet flawed 7th Saga
-the overshadowed late NES game Dragon Warrior 4
-the cult hit Lufia & The Fortress of Doom
-the anime inspired and much beloved Lunar Silver Star Story

(pictured: 7th Saga's "mode 7" graphics during battle were impressive in its day)

Another huge influence was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  While its debatable if its an RPG, you can not deny that it was the Zelda series that sparked the Adventure RPG sub-genre.  By adding statistics, experience and levels to Zelda the "modern" adventure RPG was made.  Due to Zelda's popularity we got several games we might not have otherwise gotten;
-the rarely mentioned Lagoon
-Euro-stuck Soul Blazer
-the mega popular Secret of Mana.

(The Legend of Zelda: A Link To the Past)

Tactical RPG's took root in Japan before the 1990's, but we barely got any of them over here.  Technically some of the Koei strategy games were tactical, but they lacked on the story side of things.  In this 90-93 era, there was a new try at getting the US hooked on tactical games.  We got both Warsong and Shining Force given to us.  Warsong was not yet quite as popular, though perhaps more influential in Japan than here.  Warsong was a part of the Langrisser series in Japan, a series that would inspire the creation of Fire Emblem and Shining Force itself.  Its influence would feed directly into Ogre Battle, Final Fantasy Tactics, and its legacy is continued still today in Japan as the Growlanser series is the Langrisser creator's ongoing spiritual successor series.  It would be past the decade that we would get Fire Emblem, but we did get Shining Force.  Shining Force won this era in tactical RPG's with its anime based graphics and focus on character stories.  Shining Force also added more of the typical JRPG console mechanics, like being able to walk around and speak in towns.  In later tactical RPG's, it would surprise me that it was normal to just have a town photo and explore it through menus.  (Pictured below: Shining Force's battle cutscenes are still beautiful artwork today)

So by and large, that's the RPG exprience that we got over here from Japan.  I will save my experiences and my final thoughts on it for the 4th and final post for this era.  That means we have 2 more posts before the end of the era.  Coming later will be the American RPG scene of this era(there's a dominant sub-genre), and then the stuff that stayed in Japan.