Seething Cauldron of Pop Culture Talk

Irascible Analysis of Popular Culture

Retro Night: Legend of Mana

Fourth in the Mana series, Legend of Mana takes a somewhat strange turn for the series by introducing elements and design choices that take it far from its roots and make it into something truly special. This is another of Square’s late-90’s efforts and it was directed by Koichi Ishii, who headed up the several entires in the Mana series and Final Fantasy XI as well as creating moogles and chocobos. The title was later retconned out of the main-line Mana series as Dawn of Mana was official dubbed Seiken Densetsu 4 in Japan. Well, politics aside, let’s get down to business.

One of the most obvious features of Legend of Mana is that it features not earth-shattering, apocalyptic storyline, like so many RPGs do. Here it’s a very thin thing, you choose from one of two characters and then set out in the world to meet people, go on quests, and help rebuild the world. The latter comes in the form of special items that you receive for accomplishing various things. Once the items are “planted” on the overworld map, a new location springs up for you to explore at your leisure. Leisure is a good word to use here because everything about Legend of Mana is very leisurely. There’s nothing pushing you forward with great speed, it’s all at your own pace.

Much of the “story” in the titles comes from standalone quests that you will go on with various companions. Generally you’ll find people in the various towns who need help with something and it’s up to you to help them. Some of these quests include a warrior is looking for a female friend of his who has gone missing, a merchant who is afraid of travelling the dangerous roads alone, and the many adventures of a band of pirates and their captain. There are also the three main storylines, which, upon the completion of one, the player will have the option to continue playing or to begin the final quest. It’s really up to each player to determine how much of the game they want to complete. Personally, I’d be more inclined to finish all of them first.

The gameplay is similar to other entries in the Mana series in that it’s realtime. You have direct control of the main character and the computer controls any companions you may have along with you. Any enemies that are defeated spew out money and experience crystals, grab the crystals as quickly as you can so that you can level up. And I say quickly because Legend of Mana supports two players and you don’t want your buddy snatching up those precious crystals instead. Think fast!

Where the titles truly shines is in the music and the graphics. The former, courtesy of Yoko Shimomura, is beautiful and filled with tracks that are perfectly designed to fit the mood of each situation they appear in. The town themes are particularly good and have a calm, soothing quality to them that’s a perfect match for the overall tone of the series. The graphics are sprite-based rather than the 3D prerendered backgrounds of many PS1 RPGs and I really think this choice compliments that game very well. The sprites are highly detailed and have a warm, inviting look to them. Many of the locations look absolutely breathtaking, in a way that the other techniques of the day simply couldn’t replicate.

Some people are going to be put off by the aimless plot and leisurely tone of this game, this certainly wasn’t an uncommon opinion when the game was first released in July 1999. While I won’t begrudge anyone their opinion and I can even understand where they might be coming from, I just don’t agree with it. I like it because of those things and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Somehow, everything about it seems so much more genuine, if that makes any sense.

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May 3, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retro Night: Parasite Eve

I’ve been working my way through the PS1’s massive catalog of titles for the past few days and one titles that I landed on and have gotten hooked by is Parasite Eve. This action-RPG, headed up by Takashi Tokita [known for heading Chrono Trigger, Live A Live, and The Bouncer], is based on a book of the same name by Hideaki Sena. The game, released by Square in March 1998, takes some liberties with the story, liberties which also make it a bit unique among RPGs. In Parasite Eve, rookie cop Aya Brea goes to see a play at Carnegie Hall. While there, things take a turn for the worse when opera-goers suddenly burst into flame, everyone except Aya and the lead actress in the play, a woman named Melissa. A Japanese RPG set in modern-day New York? You heard right.

The plot is a bit ridiculous, even for science-fiction. Mitochondria are trying to take over the world, apparently, because they’re tired of being slaves to humans. See, they control every aspect of life, due to their being a source of energy and evolutions and so on, but they evolve faster than people, so now they’ve evolved to the point where they’re not just going to sit back and be our slaves. Their main weapons seem to be either lighting people are fire and burning them to goo or turning them into twisted caricatures of their former selves. Most of the characters are basically cop-drama stereotypes, like the veteran cop who’s black or the overweight chief and so on. It’s better than the animu-inspired hijinks seen in later RPGs, so I suppose I won’t bag on PE’s story too much.

The gameplay is similar to Vagrant Story, which came out two years later, but is considerably more basic. Battles are random, but are a combination of real-time and turn-based. There is an active time bar, like in Final Fantasy, but the player is free to move around the battlefield while the bar fills. Often it’s possible to avoid enemies attacks altogether. Aya’s main weapons are various pistols and machine guns, although she does have a back up club in case her ammo runs out. She also has very “magic spells” that she can cast during combat to heal or call up information about monsters. Keys are also important in Parasite Eve, as the place you need to go is often behind a locked door, but it’s nowhere near as bad as in games like Resident Evil. The keys usually aren’t difficult to find. All guns and armor can be upgraded by using tools, which are found in various locations, to take the stat boosts that have been put on one piece of equipment and then transferring them to another. The piece of equipment that the stat boost is transferred from is destroyed after the transfer, so be careful. Experience is gained through battles and levelling up boosts Aya’s stats and bestows bonus points. These bonus points can be used to boost the the stats on weapons and armor or increase the speed of the auto-time battle gauge.

Parasite Eve’s overworld is the entire city of New York, although only certain locations are available to travel to through the use of your partner’s police cruiser. The hub is the precinct station, where you can take a break from fighting, get new equipment, and store items that you don’t currently need. It’s also here that mission information is handed out, which gives you an idea of where you need to go next.

The graphics are similar to the PS1-era Final Fantasies, in that it features 3D characters against prerendered backgrounds. It also features a number of CG cutscenes scattered around to spice things up. Overall, it looks decent enough, about what you’d expect from a PS1 titles from 1998. The soundtrack, by Yoko Shimamura [best known for her work on Super Mario RPG, Legend of Mana, and the Kingdom Heart series], is very good, with a number of memorable tracks. There’s no voice acting and the sound effects get the job done, but aren’t anything special.

Parasite Eve isn’t particularly difficult and it’s fairly short, you could probably beat it in a day if you really set your mind to it. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting title and a unique entry into the JRPG genre. It’s worth checking out for the $20 that a used copy will warrant on Amazon.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nostalgia Challenge: Normality

The early-to-mid 90’s were heady times for the adventure genre, particularly on the PC. LucasArts and Sierra dominated the genre with many titles that have gone on to become all-time classics, but even smaller companies were getting in on the action by introducing their owns games with their owns little twists. One such title, from British developed Gremlin Interactive, puts you in the shoes of Kent Knutson, a rebellious, wise-cracking teen living in a 1984-esque alternate world. Normality was published by Interplay in June 1996 for the PC.

The plot revolves around Kent and his quest to find out what’s really going on behind the scenes and put a stop to all the oppression that’s going on lately. Much of the humor in the series comes from Kent’s lively quips [courtesy of Corey Feldman], the bizarre situations he finds himself in, and the clever solutions that he comes up with. It’s a really funny game, one that easily rivals the best of the genre during this time.

Unlike many adventures games from this time, Normality features full-3D graphics that look to be similar in quality to titles like Duke Nukem 3D. It allows the player to look around the various environments without restrictions. It’s actual has aged fairly well all things considered, although it’s still filled with pixelated textures, 2D characters, and simple environments. That shouldn’t be a hindrance, however, as the game runs just fine in DOSBox. The graphics are helped by a unique artstyle and some nice little details here and there.

Despite the viewpoint, there’s no action in this game, it’s all classic point-and-click gameplay from start to finish. As with most such games, it revolves around picking up various items, combining items, figuring out when and where to use items, and talking to the various NPCs that inhabit the world to figure out what to do and where to go. Some of the solutions are a bit esoteric, though funny, and may require some serious lateral thinking. If all else fails, GameFAQs has guides available to help get you to the end.

Upsides: A unique story, lots of funny characters, classic point-and-click gameplay with a different perspective.

Downsides: While the graphics have some nice touches they’re really dated, some of the solutions are kind of confusing.

Verdict: It’s still just as funny as I remember it being, it’s also still really fun to play. Definitely one that shouldn’t be forgotten. 8/10

Where to Find: Normality has long since gone out of print, but the European release is still readily available on Amazon for about $10.

Random Note: The engine used in Normality was used once more for Gremlin’s second, and last, adventure game: Realms of the Haunting.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | Games, Nostalgia Challenge | , , , , , | Leave a comment

SNES vs. Genesis: Sparkster

Hot off the heals of their success with Rocket Knight Adventures, Konami made a sequel called Sparkster for the Genesis. They also made another game called Sparkster for the SNES. Aside from the names and having the same main character, they’re actually two completely different games, which is why I’m going to list both of them.

Both are similar in gameplay to the first game, although I feel that the some of changes made to the Genesis Sparkster push it a bit farther away from the spirit of the original title while the SNES Sparkster is a bit closer. Use of the jetpack is less strategic in the Genesis version, as it fills automatically and fairly quickly allowing the player to concentrate on other things. I’m not necessarily for or against it, either way has it perks and it downsides, so that’s kind of a wash for both versions I think.

Genesis Sparkster has some gameplay quirks that the SNES Sparkster doesn’t have, such a buttons that can be pressed using a burst from Sparkster’s rocket pack to access other areas of the level or unlock hidden items. On the other hand, the SNES Sparkster has a somewhat more complex and vertical level layout, it’s not a huge difference but Genesis version feels a bit more straightforward by contrast.

Graphically speaking, the both version feature slightly flatter looks than the original, which had a slightly tilted looked to the backgrounds with added a bit of depth. It’s not so much an issue with the SNES version because it has a level of vibrancy and background detail that it still looks very good, but the Genesis version has suffered just a bit and doesn’t hold up quite as well as its predecessor. Both a good looking titles that run very nicely, so that’s not necessarily a knock, just an observation. Akira Yamaoka, known for composing the Silent Hill games, contributed to the soundtrack on both Sparkster titles and, for the most part, did a pretty good job. I don’t think either soundtrack is quite as memorable as the Rocket Knight Adventure soundtrack, but that could just be nostalgia talking.

They’re also fairly hard, even harder than the original. Although the SNES version has five continues, compared to two in the Genesis version, it’s still pretty tough. Particularly in the second stage where there are these giant wheels that will squash you flat if you so much as touch them. It’s really unforgiving. Bosses in both version are hard as well. Overall, they’re just hard games and difficult in a way that I never thought the original was, although the original wasn’t necessarily easy or anything. The SNES version does have a password save system however.

I’d give a slight edge to the SNES version, but both a fine games and nice additions to the series.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | Console Wars, Games | , , , , , | Leave a comment