RPGFan Editorials - October 20th, 2000
Welcome back folks, for yet another dose of reading and thinking on some of the controversial subjects in the ever-changing genre that we love so much. This week, we have four new editorials, all of them from new writers. Also, this week's song of the week was inspired by the discussion of vocal songs in RPGs among some friends, and I felt that "Small of Two Pieces" from Xenogears is easily one of the best. Now, without further delay, let's dig in!
Final Fantasy IX - Old School Graphics?
Final Fantasy 9 is supposed to be this "old school" Final Fantasy game that is going back to the roots and giving gamers what they really want. It's too bad that FF9 seems to be another FF8.
With the upcoming sure-fire mega-hit 3D-wonder Final Fantasy 9 coming out next month, I have to remind myself that it is Final Fantasy, because it sure tries to be, but doesn't quite do it (just like FF8). Just take a look at those graphics! When I heard of how FF9's characters were going to be "super-deformed" like "old school" RPGs, I was overjoyed! Yeah! Sprites!
I was wrong. No sprites, just "super-deformed" 3D characters. Boy, was I angry. I was expecting a beautiful 2D piece of art (like Saga Frontier 2), and instead I get a pixelated 3D mess. Why?! Because 3D graphics sell?! I would have loved to see four sprites on the right and your enemies on the left, also sprites, albeit highly-detailed ones. I would have been extremely pleased, because THAT'S what I expected. Yeah, I know, graphics don't make a game and all that, but I really wanted 2D sprites in another FF game. And because FF9 is the last on PSX, I never be able to see one like that ever again...it's rather tragic, really.
Don't you agree? I'm sure a whole bunch of people would agree with me that 2D sprites in the vein of Legend of Mana or Saga Frontier 2 would have been awesome for a FF game, because FF started out in 2D and it should've gone back to it's visual roots as well in this "fan-based" FF game. Too bad...
I'm not sure if I can really chime in and agree, nor can I sit back and say that I disagree. There's the old addage, "Don't judge a book by its cover", but then again, as I pointed out in my editorial "The Elements of Videogames", all elements of a game are important, and not liking the graphics in a game already diminishes some enjoyment.
3D graphics when done right, look fantastic, but when done wrong, can turn out extremely ugly. In some cases, no matter how good 3D graphics look, example being the fighting game Soul Calibur for Dreamcast which has outstanding visuals, the 2D graphics and fighting engine in games like Street Figher Alpha 3 still hold a place in my heart, not merely out of nostalgia, but personal preference for the 2D graphics and gameplay style. To put it simply, it's all a matter of personal preference.
I say, give Final Fantasy IX a chance. If you end up disliking the game, sell it and move on to the next one. You never know, Final Fantasy IX might end up being the best of the series.
When you first remove the plastic from your game and open the case, do you immediately throw the disc into the system, never to look at the disc itself or the instruction booklet again? If you do, then save yourself some time, this is not the editorial for you. Go read something else.
I would hope, however, that you would take the time to really look at what you just paid your hard-earned cash for. After all, you didn't just pay for the game. You paid for the disc the game is on, the case it came in, the backing for the case, the instruction booklet, and even that plastic that you just tore off of the whole shebang. You just paid good money for that stuff. Look at it. It's yours.
Now ask yourself: Did I get everything I paid for?
I remember when I got my first RPG. Like most people around my age, it was Dragon Warrior for the NES. It was a fairly simple game, and even though it was my first RPG, I could have played it without even glancing at the instruction book. But, being a curious kid, I had to examine everything that came in the box, and that meant reading the instructions.
I open the book, and aside from some fairly detailed instructions on how to play the game, there were also all these neat little pictures. Pictures of items, and armor, and of some little bloke who I presumed was the character in the game I would be playing. This was the way it was with a lot of the games back then. The instruction booklets were full of artwork, and, often times, full of actual "instructions". What do all those numbers and stats and items in the game mean? It was in the instruction book. And, by the way, it was all in full color.
Nowadays (and I can almost hear hundreds of eyes rolling at that word; hang in there!), if I see colors in an instruction book, I get shiny-eyed at such a blessing. And if the "instructions" extend very far from "turn on system" and "if you've got epilepsy, uh, why are you playing this?", then I feel like I won a bit of a lottery.
Let's take a look at something fairly recent, like Front Mission 3. This is a game that I'm sure had reams of artwork, character designs, and diagrams to choose from. In the instruction book, there's a sampling of character portraits, in-game screens (tiny, and in most cases, useless), and two or three CG models. All in black and white. Ah. Stellar design, that.
And for a game as relatively complex as Front Mission 3 is (it is a strategy game after all), the "instructions" are appallingly vague. In instances where the game itself is easily understandable and readily apparent, the manual takes time to painstakingly describe things ("When the status command is selected, the status window will open. This window displays unit status information." Well, duh...). However, the manual is completely barren of information in regards to things that aren't easily figured out without a lot of trial and error. How about describing what some of the skills in the game are? How do you get these skills? What do some of those stats on the "status screen" mean?
I had to spend a few hours of game time figuring these things out. Instead of spending time enjoying the game, I had to spend some time figuring out 'Why the hell did/didn't that/this happen?'. Not fun.
I use FM3 as an example, but I think these are almost universal complaints. Most games are packaged with these dull, useless, uninformative "manuals" that barely qualify as such. This is the norm. Now, how can we expect much in the way of goodies when the basics are in such sorry shape?
Now consider how much you pay for your games.
Are you getting what you paid for?
I mentioned the old Dragon Warrior manual. How it had all those little pictures of stuff in it. Considering the simple graphics of the time, those little pictures helped draw me into the game. My imagination had been given all the fuel it needed to help me "become" that little Dragon Warrior.
And as I said, that sort of thing wasn't uncommon. It wasn't exclusive to RPGs. A lot of games had those little pictures of the main characters and items. Bits of background that weren't in the game itself. Your Zelda's and Final Fantasies did it better, but even the some of the crappiest action games had a little style in the manual.
And maps! They had maps of the game world in there. Now the question may occur to you "Why did they need maps for those old, basic, 8-bit games?" Well that question occurred to me too. The answer is that they didn't. Yeah, they might have been helpful in some ways, but did anybody really need them? Nah. But they were there anyway.
Now, what does this mean? Why would any game company bother to put something into a package that doesn't need to be there?
Because they could, that's why. And because they knew that every little bit of extra involvement that a kid has in their game, is a little more money in their pocket. It's not because they loved you, or any crap like that. But they sure wanted you to love that game.
A little artwork, a map, a little story in a manual; these are all things you can hold in your hands. Things you can look at and feel. For a kid, this is very important. It helps a kid equate a game with what it's really supposed to be: a world. It's not just little guys waddling across a screen; it's a place. This is what that little guy looks like. See? Here's a picture. This is where he's going next. See? It's right here on the map.
Even a grown-up can benefit from a little tactile and visual assistance in stimulating the imagination and developing an affinity for a game environment. Even more that a kid I guess. I'm a grown man (well, physically and legally anyway ;)), and if I'm going to be playing a game where everybody dresses funny, travels in flying boats, and has dragon sidekicks, I can use all the help I can get to suspend disbelief.
A good soundtrack adds an aural aspect to things. If you listen to that particular song from a game that you find relaxing or rousing, if brings you a little bit closer to that game. Even if you don't remember exactly where in the game that song was from, you still remember the feeling of it.
All of these "extras" are pretty cool to an adult. But to a kid, all this stuff would begin a lifelong devotion. It appeals to the believing, collecting, and hoarding nature that all kids have. And yeah, most adults too.
Some people say that Working Designs (and, to a lesser but growing extent, Atlus) is just putting all those extras into a box because it's a gimmick. An act of desperation to boost sales in the face of other companies making superior games. Do I agree? To a certain extent, heck yeah! It is a gimmick. It is an act of desperation to boost sales.
Guess what? I want them to use gimmicks. I want them to be desperate. Good! They had darned well better be desperate for my money! It's mine. I'm not going to give it away. Some companies act as if they just expect you to buy their games. I want companies to court my dollars. If Victor Ireland dressed up like a clown and gave away Lunar buttons on the freeway, then I'd say more power to him.
I've come to realize that for a company to do something different, they have to be desperate. That's just the way it works. You'd think that when a company has more of a fan base, more money to burn, they would put in extras till the cows come home. Not so. When a company starts doing unreasonably well, you don't get goodies. You get poorly written black and white manuals.
In closing (yeah, it's been a long time coming, I know), goodies are good. Hence the name. And for those who like to whine about extra cost, well, you've got a variety of options open to you: (1) Don't buy the game on release day. Trust me, you'll save a few bucks just by waiting a month (2) Used game stores. Same game, no extras. (3) Don't buy the game. End of story.
But you won't do those things will you? You know you want a punching puppet, you freak!
And hey, you get your money's worth.
Wow. That's the only word I can think of to express what I think of this editorial. No real commentary from me, other than my lack of interest in punching puppets, but that Lucia Pendant sure looks tasty.
Reviewing The Reviewer
I remember when I was a lad, a group of friends and I would attend a movie every two weeks or so. Invariably, one of us would have a film recommendation from the HIGHEST authority; that usually being a cousins' friends' sister or someone equally unknown. Of course being the easily influenced youths that we were, we thought "Hey! Milo's dogs' veterinarians' step-daughter couldn't possibly be wrong!"
Thus, I saw a lot of crappy movies while in high school.
What I'm taking a very roundabout way of pointing out is that it's ridiculous to take the opinion of someone you never met and make a judgement based on said opinion. That being the case, why in the world do we, the game playing public, pay any heed to what reviewers say?
Isn't it stupid to do so?
Not necessarily. One just has to do a certain amount of research. Not only on the game (or movie, or book, etc.), but on the reviewer themselves. Since this is, afterall, a perfect stranger, you might want to know as much as possible about the person writing the review before you go taking their opinion into account.
No, I'm not suggesting you ask their mothers maiden name or what have you. Just look at the clues to where they're coming from that are right there in their writing. Look at past reviews (or even editorials, eh?) and read closely...
Is their writing style fast, loose, and humorous? Or more "just the facts, ma'am"? Are the reviews very detailed, going into the real guts of the game? Or are they one paragraph descriptions accompanied by "It sucked!" at the end? Do they prefer paper, or perhaps, the ecologically irresponsible plastic? (Okay, not that last one.)
Perhaps most importantly, do they ever clue you in on their personal biases? I mean, everyone's biased to a certain extent, but it's important to be aware of them. If a reviewer says "I usually only play sports games, but I'll play an RPG if I'm really bored or threatened with sharp objects...", do you want that guy reviewing Fantasy Fix Fourteen? Nah, probably not. (Although I've seen similar things happen in "professional" publications. But I digress...)
The preferred answer to these questions will differ for everyone. Some people prefer a short, to the point review. Maybe you want to know a sports-heads' perspective on Phlegm Phantasy: Second. But the point is that the answer to these questions can be found just by reading between the lines a little. Eventually, you'll even be able to tell when your favorite reviewer is full of crap and giving a bad review just because they're having a bad day (it happens to everybody sometimes). Then you just have to filter their opinions, biases, and facts, through your own perspective, and presto!, an informed purchase is made.
Yeah, I know, I make it sound like more complicated than it really is. But you know what I mean...
In closing, I know there are blokes saying "I don't need some chump telling me what to buy. I never read reviews!" Valid. But there's something to be gained from getting a little feedback from someone who's actually had a controller in their hand about a game. Or from someone who actually read a book, or sat in a dark theater, or ate the fries from both McDonalds and Burger King, or who took the Pepsi Challenge...and won! (I don't even know what that's supposed to mean...)
Yup, same guy as from the previous editorial, and yup, same heavy style of content. I think he purposely writes his editorials in this manner so I can't agree or disagree with him. No biggie though, less for me to write. =P
The Problem With Position
I have an editorial, if such a word can be applied to a piece of vitriol like the following. My problem is this - I'm an English roleplaygamer. As such, I don't exist. Let me elaborate here, and probably step on a number of toes at the same time. It would appear that England is a nation of sports lovers, racing drivers, and mainstream gameplayers, and as such we wouldn't possibly want to have any actual roleplaying games over here.
Apologies for the sarcasm, but I've been around since the good old Spectrum days (No, I do not have a beard, however) and I've seen how much different the games styles have gotten. The view above is pretty true, sadly. There's a new racing game every 2 weeks here, and they'll get snapped off the shelves. NFLs every year, football games by the score. I wouldn't mind if there was equality, but we pay for this by missing out in other genres, the main one being RPGs, rather predictably.
Here's a real good example for you - Chrono Cross. One of the most
anticipated RPGs, well, ever, pretty much. All the English roleplayers
(because there's a fairly large number of us) got all excited and worked up... and then Sony stated, categorically, that it would not be released in England. Period. Need other examples? Okay. Final Fantasy Tactics never made it here. Tactics Ogre too. Persona and Rhapsody have yet to be seen. Xenogears, one of the most acclaimed RPGs ever, was not released in England. Brave Fencer Musashi was never seen. I never even knew of the Final Fantasy series until number 7 came out. And all because of the same, ill-defined reason: it wouldn't make a profit here. Given the lack of details beyond that I rather assume that this hasn't been researched well enough. Certainly if they took the time to notice the stats, they might well be pleasantly surprised.
Even when an RPG does come out here, there's so much of a lag that it quickly becomes pointless. Vagrant Story came out about a month after it's American release here. The very same week, Legend of Legaia also came out, over 6 months after it's American release. I had to endure 3 months or so of Final Fantasy 7 spoilers, and only slightly less Final Fantasy 8 spoilers.
I admit there's less of a market for RPGs here (Well, what do you expect? We're a teensy country.) but that doesn't excuse totally cutting a country off. I've heard explanations relating to the cost of getting the discs over to England and localizing them, but I don't buy that. There has to be a reason for the nice shiny European headquarters most distributors have. Localization from America is not hard. About the only thing that needs to be done is to convert the output frame rate to PAL 50 from NTSC 60, which could be done within the console easily enough, and to add the u in words such as humour and colour. Print off a small run of CDs, and see if they sell. If they do, do another run. Easy.
Legend of Mana, Legend of Dragoon, Valkyrie Profile: All of these have yet to reach England, and haven't even made the release schedules yet. But then, I'm used to that too - the overall apathy - I can think of no other word - means that RPGers in England frequently have to put up with very small notice and frequent pushing back of release dates. Even when an RPG does come out, there's little or no guarantee anyone will stock it - none of the high street shops stocked Suikoden 2 when it sidled onto the market, and I ended up finding it in a tiny little sideshop which has now closed down.
Thankfully, there is a faintly shining ray of hope. The overwhelming success of Final Fantasy 7 and 8 have made the distributors start to sit up and take a little notice. Although the release schedules are still far from perfect, it's getting slowly better. Parasite Eve 2 was released about a month ago, as I understand it, before the American release. We got Baldur's Gate 2 the very same day as Americans did. Koudelka's out now, too. It's looking better... but it's still far from perfect.
In the meantime, all we English gamers can do is import, or wait and see. Personally, I prefer the former. It may be expensive, it may be
time-consuming... but it's the only way to be sure we get the RPGs we want. Meanwhile, we can but hope they'll sit up and take notice. RPGers of England, Unite! The only thing we have to lose is our money!
Before I comment, I would like to give a warm, public welcome to Alan "TSG" Knight, the latest addition to our game reviewing roster of RPGFan editors. He seems the friendly sort, and from what I've read of his work so far, he's a very competent writer, probably moreso than I.
I lived in Germany for about 6 years of my life when my father was in the military. While in Germany, gaming news was extremely slow. Strangely enough, I remember seeing Sega arcade games and I even saw the Sega Master system for sale in some German stores while I was over there, and I never saw any Nintendo hardware or software, save the Post Exchange stores on base. Even then, the amount of stuff we saw was VERY limited. I remember the Super NES arriving in stores around '92, '93, and games were limited to Super Mario World, and not much else. The Genesis/Mega Drive was nowhere to be seen at all. Talk about a huge selection. =P
I'll say one thing, I've experienced the gaming world on the other side of the world, and it's rather dull. Those of you outside of Japan and the US, you have my full understanding and support. :)