Month: May 2016

Final Fantasy Disease: A Modern-Day Plague

In a recent interview with 4Gamer, Hajime Tabata, director of the upcoming Final Fantasy XV for PlayStation 4, introduced the concept of what he refers to as “Final Fantasy disease.” He says, “It refers to people… who can’t imagine anything other than their own view of Final Fantasy.”

He was, largely, talking to those within Square-Enix, the company that produces the (Final Fantasy series) who can’t imagine a Final Fantasy game that isn’t what they personally imagine a Final Fantasy game should be. It’s a term, though, that can be readily applied to series fans, as well. (It can be applied to fans of anything, really, but let’s stick to Final Fantasy.) And reading Tabata-san’s definition of the disease, it’s easy for me to self-diagnosis: I have it.

Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II and III (U.S. numbering), Final Fantasy Adventure, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, The Final Fantasy Legend… I was a huge fan of the Final Fantasy series on the NES, Game Boy, and SNES, back when I actually had the time and patience to sink into an epic RPG. What I imagine Final Fantasy to be (super-deformed sword and sorcery characters performing specific skills within a job system, in a story that usually has something to do with crystals and lets you ride around on the ostrich-chickens called chocobos and an airship) has led me to often refer to Final Fantasy IX, considered a series throwback game at the time of its release for the original PlayStation, as the last TRUE Final Fantasy game… at least until the Bravely Default series began on the 3DS.

Reading Tabata-san’s interview and quotes, though, I may have to rethink my stance: series do have to modernize, after all, and the original Final Fantasy formula probably isn’t in-depth enough to appeal to today’s RPG player. So, with no preparation of any sort, I’m going to watch some YouTube videos of gameplay from the Final Fantasy series proper beyond IX and decide, based on just that footage and without playing any of the games at all for even a little bit, if each of these games truly IS a true Final Fantasy game, using a True Final Fantasy Rating scale of 1-5, where 5 is “Super True and 1 is “What the FF is this?”

I might also read some Wikipedia entries.

Final Fantasy X – An extreme sports star is summoned to the future to throw basketballs at monsters. Experience points are replace by something called “sphere grids”, there’s no world map or job system, and the game progresses in a largely linear fashion. Still, there’s chocobos and airships and summons, a menu-based swords-and-sorcery combat system, not to mention awkwardly localized dialogue. True Final Fantasy rating: 4

Final Fantasy XI – An MMORPG that focuses more on individual missions than an overarching story. Players all prep themselves with dozens of spells before running up to and hacking at a monster en-masse, creating a disorganized scrum of chaos where it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s going on. Sure, it includes chocobos, airships, and has a job system, but why Final Fantasy decided to become World of Warcraft is anyone’s guess. True Final Fantasy Rating: 2

Final Fantasy XII – A solo-player adventure with a very Final Fantasy story about warring kingdoms and magic-driven technology and the magical element known as magicite and airships. Gone is the franchise’s turn-based battle system, replaced by a faster in-real-time, right-in-the-overworld, AI-controls-whoever-you’re-not system… a necessity of series modernization, I suppose, but not the Final Fantasy I know and love, and which also means that the battle music and the victory anthem are no more. No job system, but you can obtain licenses to perform certain tasks. If this were a Zelda game, a fishing license would no doubt be among the most coveted. True Final Fantasy Rating: 3

Final Fantasy XIII Final Fantasy plots generally draw from one of two story templates: Global Nuclear War or Tale of Two Cities; Final Fantasy XIII‘s story draws from the latter. Enemies again appear on the world map and can be avoided, but contact with them sends you to a battle screen where an Active Time Battle plays out. Eidolons are summoned and the player draws skills from a limited version of the classic job system. The leveling up is done through some form of crystal management, and crystals are always a good look for Final Fantasy. True Final Fantasy Rating: 4

Final Fantasy XIV – Did the world really need the Final Fantasy version of EverQuest? True Final Fantasy Rating: 1

I’m not going to include Final Fantasy XV on the list as it has yet to be released, but gameplay details are already plentiful and it seems a lot more like Final Fantasy XII than it does Final Fantasy XIII. Only with a car.

So, all right, Final Fantasy IX WASN’T the last “true” Final Fantasy game. X and XIII also fit the bill, or at least come close. Although, honestly? If you want to play the last TRUE true Final Fantasy, you’re going to have to choose between Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III (U.S. numbering).

Final Fantasy disease: there is no cure.

 

Fantasy Smash Bros.

In fantasy sports, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry, couch potatoes divvy up the best players across a particular pro league, distributing them across a make-believe league of (usually) 8 to 12 teams, creating a league full of nothing but all-stars and almost all-stars, for the most part.

What if we applied that structure to Smash Bros.?

Consider this, if you will, an addendum or appendix to the previous post, an exercise in wish fulfillment. Taking away licensing rights and copyright protection and all that jazz, if a games company were able to publish a mascot brawler featuring only the 20 greatest characters across all of video game history, what would that roster look like

Perhaps something like this:

(Editor’s Note: Before we begin, we should explain that in this space a great gaming character is one that is A. in a great game, B. easily recognizable, and C. has personality. Personality goes a long way.)

  1. Mario – Obviously.
  2. Pac-Man – Obviously.
  3. Donkey Kong – Some may dispute his placement at 3rd. Ignore the number, though; wherever he lands, he makes the list.
  4. Pikachu – The face of a global phenomenon.
  5. Lara Croft – Her arrival announced to the world that gaming had grown up… or that it had at least hit puberty.
  6. Red – The original Angry Bird heralded in the transition of mobile into a legitimate gaming platform. (Yes, it is.)
  7. Steve – One hundred million Minecraft players can’t all be wrong.
  8. Sonic the Hedgehog – The only remaining remnant of Sega’s once mighty empire.
  9. Link – The Legend of Zelda‘s silent hero.
  10. Master Chief – Halo‘s silent hero.
  11. Scorpion – Get over here!
  12. Ryu – Hadoken!
  13. Ash Ketchum – There’s 100 other Pokemon that could be listed; instead, here’s the guy who caught them all.
  14. Cloud Strife – Final Fantasy VII‘s silent hero.
  15. Solid Snake – The template for any worthwhile Metal Gear protagonist, clone or not, is Solid Snake.
  16. Luigi – Yes, he rides in on his brother’s coattails. But what impressive coattails they are.
  17. Samus Aran – She should probably be higher than this.
  18. Q-Bert – @!#?@!
  19. Gordon Freeman – Half-Life‘s silent hero.
  20. Spyro the Dragon – His namesake game made him famous; Skylanders made him infamous.

The assumption, of course, is that you disagree.

You Gotta Earn It

Nintendo is getting into the movie business.

It comes as no surprise that Nintendo is crafting plans to get their characters onto the silver screen. In a console generation where their Wii U has been badly outpaced by Sony’s PlayStation 4, Nintendo’s biggest asset, arguably, are their characters. Exhibit A: the amiibo craze, little plastic character statues, supposedly part of the “toys-to-life” genre that includes Skylanders and Disney Infinity. Nintendo initially couldn’t stock amiibo fast enough to meet demand, and it wasn’t because the figurines unlocked any great features in their games; they barely do anything at all, really. Amiibo flew off the shelves because people wanted Mario, Link, and Marth from Fire Emblem sitting on their desks at home, work, or school.

Now, this foray into movies is doubly interesting when you bring this question into the equation: what’s the big trend in the movie biz nowadays, the one that sends executive hearts all aflutter, visions of dollar signs dancing in their head? Why, it’s nothing more than two small, simple words: Shared. Universe.

The monumental success that Disney/Marvel has had with their cinematic shared universe of superheroes and villains has left most of the other major movie studios racing to set up their own: Warner Brothers is desperate to get its DC shared universe rolling (not to mention a Harry Potter shared universe), Universal tried to get a shared universe going with its classic monster characters, and Sony even talked about creating a Ghostbusters shared universe for a time after their dreams of a Spider-Man shared universe faded away with the DOA Amazing Spider-Man 2. It’s not all lollipops and rainbows trying to recreate the alchemy Marvel Studios has managed to spin, probably because nobody wants to take the same first step Marvel took: gambling on standalone big-budget films for lesser known (at the time) heroes like Iron Man and Thor… honestly, who was dying for a Thor movie? In doing so, though, Marvel EARNED their shared universe by putting out five quality solo films before breathing life into Marvel’s The Avengers, their big superhero mash-up. (Truth told, the fact that they for legal reasons COULDN’T use their biggest characters, Spider-Man and the X-Men, was probably as much as a factor as any that led to that first Iron Man movie.) These other studios would like to skip the “earning” part and go straight to reaping Avengers-sized profits. That’s not how it works, thank you very much, as WB/DC is finding out in their increasingly short-sighted attempts to jumpstart a Justice League saga.

And now into this scrum wades Nintendo. And what is that they have in their hip pocket? Why, is that a shared universe? Why, yes! Yes, it is! You, of course, may know it by its other name.

Super Smash Bros.

In this age of Civil Wars and Heroes V Heroes, Nintendo came early to the party of pitting their famous champions against each other in a this-makes-no-sense-but-who-cares fighting franchise. Remember those early commercials for Smash Bros. 64? Actors dressed in Nintendo mascot costumes, frolicking together through fields before turning on each other, Fight Club style? It was a ridiculous idea, as insane a spin on sumo wrestling as Pokemon is on cock-fighting, but it somehow worked. The Wii version of the game even included a single-player campaign that was more or less a massive Avengers-style story piece using Captain Falcon and Kirby in place of Hawkeye and Ant-Man.

It also just so happens that Smash is the sort of game that could only have been made by Nintendo.

There’s a lot about the PS4’s success that Nintendo would surely love to learn the secrets of, but the one thing Nintendo still holds over Sony (and Microsoft as well) are its characters. Sony tried its version of Smash Bros. a few years back, calling their shared-universe fighting game PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, throwing characters who had appeared in games for the various PlayStation consoles into a bottle and shaking it. Though well-reviewed, Battle Royale ended up selling less than a million copies. No Smash Bros. game has ever sold less than 4.8 million copies, and that one was on the Wii U, a console with only 10 million units out in the wild. The trouble for Sony is that their characters, even the ones that starred in great, classic games, just don’t have anywhere near the charm and appeal of Nintendo’s stable. Charm and appeal don’t just come out of nowhere, mind you. It took Nintendo many years and many sequels to get their characters shared universe-ready.

The line-up for that first Smash Bros. game in 1999 started with Mario and Donkey Kong, two of the three biggest characters in the history of video games (the third, Pac-Man, would make his way to the battle for Smash for 3DS/Wii U), and Pikachu, the yellow centerpiece of a then red-hot Pokemon phenomenon. From there the baton was passed to Zelda’s Link and Metroid’s Samus Aran, two of the standard-bearers from the early NES days who, along with Mario and his also-in-Smash brother Luigi, had starred in a litany of sequels, almost all of which were better than their already impressive predecessors. (Taste is subjective, but there’s no denying: nine times out of ten, Nintendo hits it out of the park with Super Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games.) By the time you reached the more esoteric characters on the roster, like Ness and Jigglypuff, the table had been set with the protagonists of well-known game after well-known game.

Sony, on the other hand, led their All-Stars line-up with the unappealing (Sweet Tooth, psychotic clown of the Twisted Metal vehicular combat franchise), the obscure (Fat Princess, from Fat Princess), the untested (the fighter roster included characters from Starhawk and Gravity Rush, two non-franchise games that were released mere months before Battle Royale), and the downright reviled (Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2, among the most hated lead characters in gaming history.) Sure, PaRappa the Rapper of early 90’s fame was a fairly well-known face, but it didn’t help when the character’s creator went on record to say he wasn’t thrilled that PaRappa was being featured in such a violent combat game. On top of it all, Sony couldn’t get Solid Snake and Cloud Strife, two of the faces that helped define the PlayStation brand, for Battle Royale. (You’d have to assume they asked. Why on Earth wouldn’t they?) Instead, Konami and Square-Enix, the studios that hold the rights to Metal Gear and Final Fantasy, respectively, would license the characters out to Nintendo for the Smash Bros. series, with Snake appearing in Smash Bros. Brawl on the Wii and Cloud in Smash Bros. for 3DS/Wii U. This, even though Snake hadn’t been in a new game on a Nintendo console in years and Cloud never had been at all! Aside from those two defecting Sony cornerstones, a trio of iconic PlayStation characters were inexplicably missing from the Battle Royale roster: Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and Lara Croft. Along with Cloud and Snake, those characters ARE the early PlayStation brand. In retrospect, how in the world could anyone have thought that a mascot brawler that DIDN’T include the company’s most popular mascots was a good idea? Imagine if Microsoft made an X-Box mascot brawler and didn’t include Master Chief. What’s even the point?

PS4 is white-hot right now, and Nintendo is looking forward, putting the poorly-performing Wii U behind them and pinning their prospects on a foray into mobile gaming and their forthcoming NX platform. So when it comes to the console wars, Sony clearly doesn’t have much to hang their head about these days. As both a movie studio and games publisher, though, between Spider-Man and those scuttled Ghostbusters plans and PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, they don’t seem to have much of a clue about how to craft a fictional shared universe. Take notes, guys: you can’t just shove the Rhino, the Vulture, and the Black Cat into the same movie with no pretext and expect audiences to buy into it, no more than you can tell people to get excited over Sack Boy, Sly Cooper, and Nariko in the same game without first laying the necessary groundwork. You can’t just force a shared universe to happen.

You gotta earn it.

Boxy Fox McCloud

Polygons are funny things. Basic, elementary math defines them as “flat, two-dimensional objects,” and though they are by definition 2D shapes, in gaming history polygons are representational of the leap AWAY from 2D gaming and INTO 3D gaming.

It makes little sense. But as the processors of home gaming consoles grew in power, designers found that one of the easiest ways to give gamers the sensation of watching physical objects moving through a 3D world was to take polygonal shapes and fold them together like digital origami, a simile that is far more literal than one might imagine. More on that in a bit.

I’m not much qualified to either lecture or opine on the mechanics of game design or the creation of digital images; odds are someone will tell me that modern 3D games are STILL polygonal, but the polygons themselves are microscopic. I don’t know; call me a Luddite. What I DO know is that the 3D revolution came in a box, or (more accurately) in many boxes stacked into cubes and other feasible simulations of length, width, and depth.

The polygonal look has not aged well. Classics done up in the low-poly art-style, games particularly from the N64 and PS1 era, are painful and even a little embarrassing to look at now. “I was wowed by THAT?!” we exclaim while looking at screenshots of Super Mario 64 or Ocarina of Time or Final Fantasy VII. Yes, we were. The joy of guiding our favorite characters through fully (well, partially) realized three-dimensional spaces was enough to make us forget that the avatars we controlled looked less like our favorite characters and more like something Picasso might have dreamed up in his Cubist phase.

Star Fox, though, was a gaming franchise that was born at a time when it was way hip to be square. The second 3D game developed by Nintendo (the first was a game called X, a little-known FPS for, of all things, the original Game Boy), Star Fox was an on-rails shooter that placed you in the cockpit, or just behind the ship depending on your viewing preference, of an Arwing space fighter piloted by Fox McCloud, the leader of a anthropomorphic quartet of fighter pilots battling against evil space monkeys.

(Never change, Nintendo.)

Star Fox was the first game developed with what Nintendo branded the Super FX chip, a processor that could be inserted into the cartridge of a Super Nintendo game which would allow the game’s engine to generate and display 3D polygonal graphics. A full console generation before the launch of the polygon machine known as N64, the boxy design of Fox’s fighter and world was as basic a 3D polygonal rendering as could be commercially produced and packaged and sold to consumers… and it was stunning. We knew it was stunning because official propaganda literature, aka Nintendo Power, told us as such, even going so far as to include an actual origami (there it is!) Arwing in one of its many issues devoted to Star Fox.

Razzle-dazzle aside, the truth was that in a sense gamers were suddenly free, no longer confined to digital worlds, controlling characters composed of a series of sprites that in many ways were glorified 2D flip-book art. Even though Star Fox’s spaceships and mechs and buildings were barely recognizable as such, the world sped towards us and past us at such a clip that we, the gaming public, scarcely took notice, lest we be distracted from the perpetual thrust of adventure that’s characteristic of the on-rail shooter genre. In hindsight, of course, the never-stop on-rails design of Star Fox was likely chosen to distract gamers from the plainness of the world. The second Super FX title, Stunt Race FX, allowed its players to stop and examine the bland emptiness of its 3D world, which could be at least part of the reason why Stunt Race FX was barely a blip on the radar screen while Star Fox launched a respectable (and still running) Nintendo franchise.

Being birthed in polygons, though, has arguably held Star Fox back. The visuals of the latest Star Fox game, Star Fox Zero, hearken back to designs once thought revolutionary but now less attractive to many than old-school 8-bit pixel art. No, the Wii U is not a visual powerhouse, but there was clearly a choice made by Nintendo to maintain the boxy Super FX feel of the Arwings and entire Star Fox universe. True, the biggest criticisms of Zero may be the controversial “aim with the Gamepad” control scheme (full disclosure: I like the controls, though I’m not in a large company in that), but visuals that originated in a twenty-three year old game are a close second.

The irony, of course, is that Star Fox’s simple, boxy polygons have arguably aged better than the pretending-to-be-the-future Cubist paintings of the following generation’s Ocarina and Mario 64. The difference is, that A.) Star Fox simply is not the game those two masterpieces are, and B.) the visuals in the Mario and Zelda franchises evolve with every iteration. Then why can’t Star Fox? Why is Star Fox the franchise that must hold fast to its old look? So throw the one-and-done Star Fox Zero controls aside. The real question facing Nintendo as they move forward with the franchise, I think, goes something like this: must Star Fox remain Star Box to remain Star Fox?

We’ll see.