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

Retro Night: Vagrant Story

After a string of PS1 successes in the late 90’s with games like Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Final Fantasy Tactics, Saga Frontier 1 and 2, Einhander, Xenogears, Parasite Eve 1 and 2, Legend of Mana, Front Mission 2 and 3, Threads of Fate, and Chrono Cross, Square was at the top of their game. Just two months after the 90’s ended, they unveiled their latest RPG offering: Vagrant Story. It was a bit different from many of their other RPGs, in that it featured a semi-realtime battle system and full 3D graphics. It also took a more realistic art style for its characters and settings, rather than the anime-influenced style of previous Square RPGs. The title, headed by Yasumi Matsuno [known for his work on several Ogre Battle titles and Final Fantasy Tactics], received a perfect score from Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu and similarly high praise from American websites and magazines. However, it was somewhat overshadowed in its time by being squashed between the releases of Chrono Cross, Parasite Eve II, and Final Fantasy IX.

In terms of gameplay, Vagrant Story is a far cry from Square’s other RPGs. Rather than turn-based combat with parties of characters, the combat in Vagrant Story all takes places in near-realtime with just one player character [Ashley Riot, a member of the Valendia Knights of Peace]. To attack, the player must first enter battle mode by pressing the X button and then bring up the attack menu by pressing the O button. The attack menu displays all the opponents that Ashley can attack as well as which parts of their body that he can target. Different parts of the enemies’ bodies can result in varying amounts of damage and varying degrees of success. An opponent’s arm might be easier to hit while amounting in less damage, but an attack to the head might result in greater damage but be more difficult to land a blow. Once an attack is select, Ashley will carry it out. However, this does not mean that control is taken away from the player until the attack is finished. During the animation, the player can press either the X, O, or Square button to chain together different attacks or effects [based on which have been preselected before combat] but these must be done at exactly the right instant, otherwise the chain attack will fail. The game takes place in the dungeons and sewers of a large, Renaissance-style city and is decidedly a dungeon-crawler, as there are no towns or NPCs to interact with. Some people will looks on this as a bad thing, as most RPGs feature these two things prominently, but Vagrant Story is still able to tell a rich, dramatic story even without these things.

There’s also a bit of platforming in the game. Sometimes you’ll have to stack up and arrange boxes to access areas that are high up. It’s not really a big thing and most of these can be solved fairly quickly, but its…well…mildly interesting I suppose and something to do other than fighting all the time.

The graphics in Vagrant Story are completely in 3D and it is possible to zoom into a first-person mode and look around the room that Ashley is currently in. It definitely looks good for a PS1 game and the realistic art is a nice change from what is seen in a lot of other RPGs, but it really hasn’t aged well. The textures are heavily pixelated and there’s an abundance of texture shimmering [a common ailment of PS1 games with 3D graphics], especially in the cutscenes. There is a nice attention to detail, particularly in the environments [although they do tend to be a bit repetitive] and in the faces of the characters, which actually emote.

Item customization is a big factor in Vagrant Story, since getting new equipment is no longer as simple as finding a shop in the latest town. Weapons and armor can be broken down into their base components and then recombined to make entirely new pieces of equipment and there gems found throughout the game that can imbue equipment with various stat increases and other effects. Tweaking of equipment and making new equipment plays a major role in Vagrant Story and becomes essential as the game progresses. All the more so because there is no experience or leveling system. Sometimes after a boss fight or mid-boss fight, you’ll have a chance to get a stat bonus and fighting does unlock certain special moves, but that’s it.

Problems? Well, there are a few. For one thing, the game is very short. It can probably be beaten in about five or six hours, maybe a couple more if you try to find all the side rooms and such. For an RPG that’s practically miniscule. Another issue is that the underground dungeons get pretty repetitive after an hour or so. There’s just not a whole lot of variety to all the rooms and corridors, unfortunately. There’s also a spike in difficulty at around the two hour mark, when enemies suddenly see a huge boost to their defenses. Not their attack though, oddly enough. Theses are very real problems and they can make the game a bit frustrating to play.

Now, the question: is Vagrant Story still worth playing? Sure, just don’t pay a fortune for it, that’s all. It’s got its issues, that’s without question, but it’s still a fun little RPG from people who are masters of the genre.

April 29, 2010 Posted by | Retro Night | , , , , | Leave a comment

SNES vs. Genesis: Strider and Strider Returns

Strider and Strider Returns

The first Strider, developed by Capcom and published by Sega for the Genesis in September 1990, follows the exploits of the titular character as he venture through various locations in a futuristic Soviet Union. The one thing you need to know above all else about Strider is that he is exceedingly agile, leaping through the air and performing flips and other feats with ease. His main weapons is his sword, which he uses against all sorts of robots and other enemies that get in his way. There are a number of boss battles scattered around, none of them are particularly wild, but they break the monotony of fighting average enemies all the time. The game is a bit on the hard side, but the main issue is figuring out what works against the boss characters and exploiting their weaknesses, although it does have a tendency to a be a bit cheap at times [especially by surprising you with enemies where you might not expect one, or not in the way that you expect]. So, again, memorizing what happens when and where it the key to success. Unlike many other run-and-gun, and run-and-slash, titles, Strider has a bit more platforming than most, with the levels have vertical elevation and Strider being able to leap quite high and even hang from ledges. It’s a bit dated, and the Genesis port isn’t perfect, but it’s fun enough in its own right and a nice little piece of Capcom history.

There’s a sequel, developed by Tiertex [the team behind the Master System port of the original Strider] and published by US Gold, but it’s really not very good. The controls feel floaty and slow. Best to just ignore this one ever existed and play the REAL Strider 2 [developed by Capcom and available on arcade or PS1].

April 24, 2010 Posted by | Console Wars, Games | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nostalgia Challenge: Spyro the Dragon

Two years after Super Mario 64 dropped and showed everyone what a 3D platformer was all about, a new mascot character hit the scene with his own brand new platforming adventure. Spyro was the brainchild of Insomnia Games and Univseral Interactive, who joined forces to give the purple dragon his own series of games. There’s been a slew of games since 1998, but Spyro the Dragon was the first.

When the dragons insult evil genius Gnasty Gnort on live TV, he immediately takes action and transforms all of them into stone statues. All of them except a young dragon named Spyro. As the titular character, you must travel the various realms of the dragon world and free your fellow dragons from their stony prisons, all the while collecting jewels and various other things. Eventually facing off against Gnasty Gnort and putting a stop to his evil ambitions.

The graphics hold up fairly well despite the game being nearly twelve years old. The various worlds of the dragons are colorful and cover a variety of various themes, from war-ravaged wastelands to pastoral towns.  Aside from the usual pixelated textures that were common on the PS1, there’s plenty to like about the graphics and the art style. It’s definitely got a quirky, charming style that works with 3D limitations of the system.

The gameplay is not too dissimilar from other 3D platformers like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, in that you are tasked with climbing to various heights, fighting lots of weak enemies, and collecting an assortment of baubles that serve no real purpose. However, it does have a few ideas of its own, such as Spyro’s fire-breathing, head-butting abilities, and gliding abilities mix things up a bit beyond just jumping and punching. There’s also a nice variety of different enemies and each area has it’s own variations on some of the standard enemy types. It’s a fun game, plain and simple, far more than the basics of the gameplay or story or whatever would have you believe. And it all holds up very well as an overall package.

Specs: Developed by Insomnia Games and Universal Interactive, Published by Sony Computer Entertainment. Released on the PS1 in 1998. Available in all regions.

Upsides: Colorful graphics, fun gameplay, a sense of humor.

Downsides: It’s all been done before and probably better.

Verdict: A fun platformers that stands the test of time and remains a nice time-waster despite its age. 8/10

Where to Find: It was released recently on PSN. It’s also available used on Amazon for $10.

Random Note: After three games, Universal took over the series and Insomnia moved on to Rachet and Clank.

April 15, 2010 Posted by | Games, Nostalgia Challenge | , , | Leave a comment