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Retro Reviews: Breath of Fire

July 17, 2009

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The 90’s saw the release of some amazing RPG’s. Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger are still two of my all-time favorite games. Unfortunately, with Squaresoft consistently claiming your game time, there may be several other great RPG’s you missed. Over the next couple weeks I am going to review/suggest some old school Role Playing Games that deserve your attention but may have fallen off your radar.

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In all fairness, Squaresoft was involved with Breath of Fire as well. BOF was developed by Capcom for the Super Famicom in 1993, but was licensed for release in America by Square. The game was met with good reviews from the likes of Gamepro and Nintendo Power and has garnered a cult following since its initial release. Four sequels later (each getting progressively worse after BOF 2, in my opinion), the original still stacks up well against famous RPG’s of the era.



The game is also significant for being one of Capcom’s earliest major US localizations. Squaresoft mainly dealt with English translation as Capcom had never imported a game with so much text. Interestingly enough, the development of Breath of Fire for North American release is the primary reason that Final Fantasy V was not seen in the US until 1999.
In hindsight, Breath of Fire did not revolutionize the genre. No new ground was broken, and the game will probably not change your life. It is simply a solid, well-made, good time of a game. The plot involves a boy named Ryu who is searching for his kidnapped sister only to discover he is the missing member of a warring dragon clan. He and his friends must collect six keys in order to seal away an evil goddess bent on world destruction.

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The game play is standard but solid. You have a world map which your character navigates to get from town to town or dungeon to dungeon. Within towns you will meet humans and anthropomorphic animals which you can talk to and interact with. Items and equipment insure that your characters can continue to defend themselves. As far as battles go, you have four characters at a time each with specific attacks and magical abilities. For instance, Ryu can transform into a dragon. Karn is a crafty thief, and so on. As you fight random encounters you gain experience and coinage which allow you to progress through the game. And, as usual, if your HP drops below 0 you lose.

On a related note, BOF is one of the first games in my memory that featured a night and day that change with the passing of real-time. Events or characters may change or move depending on the time of day. Can anyone think of an earlier example of this? I cannot.

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Again, Breath of Fire will not alter your opinion on RPG’s in the 90’s. Nor is it the best game ever. It just seems to me that we sometimes focus so much on Final Fantasy that we overlook less praised, less promoted games. Breath of Fire is a colorful, entertaining experience that will provide you with 30 hours of mindless fun. Also, Capcom recently rereleased BOF for the GBA, so you don’t have to spend time and money searching for the old SNES cartridge. If you missed it the first time, go to your local game store and check out Breath of Fire!

Overlord II Review

July 15, 2009
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recommended

Overlord II was released mid-June for PS3, 360, and PC. My review is of the 360 version of the game. Overlord II was developed by Triumph Studios, who developed the Age of Wonders series. The game is (obviously) a sequel to the first Overlord.

I first got into the Overlord series shortly after the first one came out, as I found out it was written by the daughter of Terry Pratchett, one of my all time favorite authors. That, and my friend’s description of it as evil Pikmin was enough to persuade me. When I heard that a sequel was coming out, I was of course extremely interested, and as I heard more and more about it began to be more excited. Unfortunately the end result was not as great as my anticipation for it.

While by no means a bad game, there were a number of frustrating and puzzling missteps made in this game. Before I get into specifics however, I need to explain the basics of the game. As the name suggests, you play the titular Overlord, a Sauron looking fellow, bent on conquering the world. This objective is primarily achieved through the main game mechanic of minions. Minions are cute but ugly but loveable creatures utilized not unlike the Pikmin to which my friend referred. There are four basic minion types, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The brown minions are your basic cannon fodder melee types, who have no major weaknesses, but no major strengths. Next is red minions, essentially the mages of the bunch, who cast ranged fireball spells, and die faster than Britney Spears’ career. Next are the stealthy green minions, who can backstab enemies for massive damage, but are weaker head-on than the browns. Lastly are the blue minions who are capable of swimming, and reviving dead minions. In addition to combat reds, greens, and blues serve have loose puzzle solving abilities, for example reds can remove fire, greens can remove poison, blues swim, etc.

Now my first major issue with the game was the control scheme. I haven’t played the first game in a while, so the controls may be bad in the original too, but I didn’t remember them being bad, and in the sequel some of the controls were downright ridiculous. For starters, the right stick is used to send out a group of minions (known as sweeping them). The right stick also controls the camera. Additionally you have 4 types of minions, which logically would go on the D-pad. Nope, instead you have to hold the right bumper, and then use the face buttons to select a specific minion color. On top of that, the lock-on system can be a bit wonky. That being said, the game is hardly unplayable, merely awkward. One minor exception, that got me frustrated to the point that I just turned off my system was a sequence in which you need to precisely control your minions to activate buttons in a very strict timeline. It took in excess of 20 attempts to finally succeed.
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Now the humor of the game is more or less intact from the original game, you’ve got your minion’s amusing antics, some witty dialogue (although some dialogue can be pretty bad), stereotypical hippie elves, hedonistic imperialists, and so on. When not dealing with the frustrating controls gameplay is mostly fun, albeit on the linear side. There were a couple of cool new features which sadly had slightly flawed execution, namely mounts, and siege weapons. Each type of minion except blues has a unique type of mount, which while looking cool, don’t add a lot to the gameplay outside of progressing through puzzles. The siege weapons were a great idea, but can take a bit to get used to aiming and firing them. Additionally the boats in the game were fairly awkward to controls.

Other minor issues I had seemed like a  frustrating attempt to fix something that wasn’t broken. Magic is now dumb ed down to 3 spells, 2 of which are not overly useful. You don’t need to explore or search nearly as hard to find upgrades in this game, as most are just lying around. Also, you can no longer customize armor and weapons, and are instead stuck with preset items. Additionally boss fights were lacking, both in number, and in epicness. All in all the game is still fun however, and if you liked Pikmin, or the first Overlord game, then worth at least a rental. Depending on how persistent you are, and how skilled you are with the controls the game is in the 10 hour range.

-The Big Man

From the Front Lines: Video Games Live

July 11, 2009
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Good morning folks; I have to say I’m glad this is written rather than a video blog, seeing as I completely lost my voice last night.  The question is:  Who is this?  That’s right; it’s the flame war inducing Brandon coming at you with something very different to report.  Rather than report, let me tell you a little story…

Flashback to a few weeks ago.  While perusing through the interwebs, my roommate Matt and I stumbled across something called “Video Games Live” at Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia.  Interest mounting, we clicked into it to learn that it was the National Symphony Orchestra playing some of the greats of video game music.  Please note, neither Matt or I keep up with the gaming media very well, so this seemed completely new to us.  We both admitted that it sounded intriguing, but I had plans for the tenth and Matt didn’t want to spend the money.

Move forward to 7/9.  I was out driving in between locations, trying to obtain information on individuals’ backgrounds; yes, that’s what I do for a living.  I’m an investigator.  No, it’s not nearly as exciting a you’re imagining.  Anyway, between these appointments, I get a call from Matt that goes like this:

Matt:  “Hey, what’re you doing tomorrow night?”

Brandon: “Not a lot; Allison’s working until close, so the group thing got canceled.”

Matt: “Video Games Live…  Lets go; I’ll order the tickets right now.”

Brandon: “Oh, that’s tomorrow?  Uh, sure.”

Matt: “Want to bring beer?”

Brandon: “Oh yes, the perfect man date.”

7/10…  Armed with Bud Lights for Matt and Michelob Ultra Ambers for myself, we headed out to Wolf Trap in the Charger.  Here we were thinking that Wolf Trap, being a national park and what not, would only be slightly full with mainly Asian girls and young children.  Boy were we wrong.  Wolf Trap was at max capacity with every type of person you could imagine.  From hippies to hipsters, mama’s boys to moms, jocks to geeks, thousands of people had thronged to the event in anticipation for the various musical masterpieces there.  While I’d love to go through each song and tell you what it was and how amazing it was, I’ve decided I’d be doing you, the readers, a disservice.  I will say this though:  Every single number blew my mind out of my skull and splattered it across the poor security guard behind me.

On top of music that was beyond words, there was something even greater.  Many there were gamers.  Now, you don’t need to be antisocial to be a gamer, but you don’t have to be social either.  I think it was evident that sometimes gamers can become a social island to themselves as far as in person; however, once brought together, every one had a world to say to each other.  Every single person there had the same childhood memories.  “You played <insert game title> as a kid?  Remember that one boss in the second to last level?”  It was an atmosphere completely open in conversation, even without names given.  Why?  Because no matter how different each person was, there was a unity splayed out through the music of games like Metroid, Chrono Trigger, and Castlevania.  Matt was dressed like the iconic frat guy.  I looked like some bad open mic poet.  One person had more piercings than…  Someone with a lot of piercing.  Another could have lifted me over his head and tossed me at least twenty feet.  Did I mention there were gamer chicks?  Yeah, even those rarities of nature graced the concert.  The point is though we were all unified, remembered childhoods past, and taught each other new ways to enjoy the games and systems we currently own.

So what’s the point of this post?  My normal column is all about bringing on more intellectual thought for video games.  This post?  I say to all of the readers out there:  Go to Video Games Live.  There are over sixty shows this year.  Let alone the music, there is no excuse to miss such an amazing social exchange.  The website is http://www.videogameslive.com and they have the tour dates listed.  Without consulting the Big Man or Garrett, I will say anyways that TBMAG are 120% behind this production.  In all seriousness, from a guy who’s been to nearly fifty professional concerts of all sorts, this was the best concert I have ever been to.

-Brandon

Games You Probably Like, But Shouldn’t: Uncharted

July 9, 2009

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Bruce Willis was dead at the end of Sixth Sense. I would have put a spoiler warning if the conclusion hadn’t become a pop culture reference the likes of which even The Lonely Island makes quips about. In a movie completely revolving around the dead, the ending may have come as a shock for most, but it held within the bounds of reason for that movie’s reality. That’s how M. Night mystified audiences worldwide, reasonable surprise within a set mode of reality.

What happened from there? In Signs, a movie about aliens hailed the power of God, a presence that had been non existent, if not shunned through the rest of the film. In The Village, not only were there no monsters, but a commune somehow existed in secret in America without a single fly over. M. Night strayed from the surprising, given reality and found his way into writing reality-jarring, even the false reality-jarring, endings that leave much to be desired.

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Disclaimer: SPOILERS for the Jak series, and Silent Hill 2 in this paragraph.

But wait! Brandon! What does this have to do with games that I should or shouldn’t like? Everything. Game designers have gone down the same path. Initially, they understood the same reality-bound ideas. For instance, at the end of Jak 3, even though it was hinted at, it was great to see that Jak had sent himself through time. What about Silent Hill 2? James smothered his wife and I sat there with my mouth agape. Like M. Night though, the gaming community has fallen headlong through the rabbit hole, losing our sense within dramatic endings. Final Fantasy IX had an excessively unnecessary final boss that had no impact on the plot. The well accepted inFAMOUS had a weak, even poorly personalized ending that I won’t spoil. There is one game worse than any I can imagine though; heralded as a diamond in the next generation rough, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune has a conclusion as discordant from the rest of the game as The Crystal Skull.

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Grab your whip and your brown- Wait, this isn’t Indiana Jones! This is Uncharted; though the similarities are staggering. Drake runs around hunting for treasure, shooting up bad guys, bumping into Nazis, and making sarcastic comments all while making a woman fall in love with him. Here’s the thing though; I was completely okay with it. In fact, I was enamored with the jungle treasure exploration genre, one that I thought had burnt out years ago. Aside from a few poorly designed Indiana Jones games, Pitfall was basically the culmination of such a game. Then came Uncharted.

I can happily say that I joyfully played the game with the same lens as everyone else: “This is absolutely fantastic. This doesn’t need a single thing added.” So, rather than allow me to enjoy the game to its completion, the writers of Uncharted decided we the gamers needed a twist. Why? Because apparently, there can not be any modern work of popular fiction these days that does not include some form of neo deus ex machina.

Zombie-monster-mutants, that’s how they pulled a M. Night on the gamers. They completely twisted the genre to butcher the treasure hunting action adventure much like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s alien. I guess I should go out on a limb and say…

SPOILER ALERT

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A statue that causes a mutation in people almost instantaneously, creating Spanish zombie monsters? I mean really Naughty Dog, who shot the writers and replaced them with idiot thirteen year olds trying to think of the coolest thing they’d want to fight? Let alone the fact that there’s no possible way to mutate every strip of DNA in a human body simultaneously, but to flounder so pathetically in writing? It’s amateur. On a side note, zombies (though Nazi zombies are much better) are up there on the greatest fantasy enemies list, right next to futuristic robot ninjas; however, there is a time and place for them, most likely in a game with Dragonforce playing in the background and Jack Black being a voice actor. There is no place for these low brow ideas within a seamlessly well done genre; once again, I present the recent debauchery of Indian Jones as an excessive parallel.

Where did we go wrong? “Nothing is new since Rome.” That quote began the downfall of creativity. Thanks to it, all artists and writers have started to fight against it, hence the rise of modernism in all creative forms. Films and video games were hit with this trend the latest due to their late blooming emergence; however, now that the technology is up and running full swing, every writer and director is out to out do the other. What’s wrong with writing a treasure hunting game that stays in that genre? What about a dramatic movie that doesn’t require a surprise science fiction twist to make it interesting? A word to all creative companies out there, film, publishing, and videogames: Your audiences don’t always need a twist. Even if it’s an old story, if it’s told well enough with a new breath of life, then we’ll love it.

So, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a game you probably like, but… Oh no! Futuristic robot ninjas! I’ll have to fight them off rather than finish my sign off… Eat lead Metallic Jackie Chan!

-Brandon

Final Fantasy Gaiden: Four Warriors of Light (SE countdown)

July 1, 2009

Not our usual post, but figured it was worth a mention. The mystery of the Square Enix countdown has been revealed.

Final Fantasy Gaiden

Final Fantasy Gaiden

Another DS game. If you can translate the rest, feel free.

Point and Clique: A Look at Gamer Culture

June 28, 2009
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Gamer culture, as it is today is a sadly underdeveloped concept. Views of said culture especially among ‘non-gamers’, typically see it as a cut and dry on/off switch. Either you are a gamer, or you are not. There are two major problems with that vein of thought.

First, how is one declared ‘gamer’ or ‘non-gamer’? There exists no standard, no scale of gamerness on which to base such classifications, and as such it becomes heavily biased and arbitrary. To some playing Tetris is ample qualification to be a gamer; to others if you have not played games since the NES era then you have no business calling yourself a gamer. Obviously these are extreme examples, but it shows how widely the perception can vary. Outside of establishing an actual standard of measurement for gamerness, which would be clunky, forced, and no less arbitrarily determined than the current system, the easiest solution is leaving ‘gamer’ as a purely self-identifying label. If someone wishes to be identified as a gamer, then let them claim that. What right does anyone have to deny an aspect of someone else’s identity?

The second major issue, as well as the chief focus of this piece, is the perception of ‘gamers’ as a unified whole. This is far from the truth, as gaming culture is very much segmented, and in many ways similar to the average high school, although there are some key differences. Within the broad generalization of ‘gamers’ exist a vast number of cliques and factions.

A trend I have noticed, to some degree, is that those who consider themselves gamers have a tendency to form into genre based cliques. Granted these are not as well defined, nor as exclusive as cliques in a high school setting, but many common elements exist. A prime example of this is the gaming equivalent of ‘The Jocks’, gamers of a highly competitive nature, who trend towards shooters, sports titles, and fighting games. While there are certainly exceptions a large number of ‘jocks’ do not play games falling into other categories. There are many gaming cliques, such as ‘musicians’, those who tend to play games like Guitar Hero and Sing Star obsessively, the gaming equivalent of the student sitting on a bench playing an acoustic guitar, or a popular high school band with minimal talent. Another clique is the ‘artsy’ gamer, who tend to play primarily indie games. A new clique has begun to flourish recently, the so-called casual gamer. These gamers are the equivalent of cheerleaders, surprisingly popular, given their general lack of substance. As with their high school counterparts, there are frequently some ‘jock’/’cheerleader’ relationships, in the sense that some ‘jocks’ enjoy casual games, and some casual gamers enjoy sporting titles. While there are many other cliques, the last major one to be mentioned is the ‘nerds’. This clique represents the ‘hardcore gamers’, those who play older games, often with a focus on RPGs and adventure games.

As with the high school model, there tend to be many issues between the various cliques. Stereotypes, as they are prone to do, have sprung up, and even led to enmity. Casual gamers are perceived as vapid airheads, with no real respect for gaming history. ‘Jocks’ are frequently seen to be noisy and obnoxious, as well as being looked down upon for buying new iterations of their sports titles every year. ‘Artsy gamers’ tend to be seen as snobs of the gaming world, looking down at the ‘uninspired’ games, and elevating games to a high level even if artistic merit is the only pro the game has. A prime example of this is the game “The Path”, which, in addition to having a premise that many found abhorrent, is reported to have shoddy game play. Despite this many ‘artsy gamers’ herald the game as a brilliant artistic work.

Another major similarity in gamer culture is the equivalent of school rivalry. As many high schools have obsessive fans who attend sporting events to boisterously support their team, and denounce the others, so too does gaming have its console fanboys, and while they may not paint their chests, they are no less obnoxious. Such fans will loudly make claims as to the superiority of their team/console, even when such claims have no relevance on the topics at hand.

One fairly ironic issue with my gaming culture as a high school model is that, while the classifications make sense in terms of genre, with ‘jocks’ playing sports games and so on, the actual interactions tell a different story. As was stated previously, when the cliques are defined based on genre, the ‘hardcore gamers’ fill the role of the nerd. However, when one looks at the overall actions and attitudes of the ‘nerds’ their behavior is far more closely analogous to that of real life jocks. ‘Hardcore gamers’ have a tendency to view most of the other cliques with disdain, and as lesser gamers, often excluding them, if not blatantly ridiculing them. As with real jocks, these gamers tend to have the heaviest concentration of obsessive fandom. Very few of the other cliques will engage in a debate, much less a flame war over the alleged superiority of one console over another. Additionally, while typically musicians are seen as ‘cool’ within the confines of a high school, in actuality music gamers are treated more akin to ‘band geeks’.

Another major difference between gamer culture and the high school model is the level of segregation in the different cliques. In gamer culture, one is much more free to participate in multiple cliques, unlike in high school, where one is typically stuck with the label they are given. I myself play a variety of games, and while I enjoy RPGs the most, I am also fond of Rock Band, and Wii Sports. So the model is obviously imperfect, but it is certainly more accurate than the idea of a single unified gamer culture. One can certainly hope that given time and effort, the different cliques of gaming can learn to better understand, and better tolerate each other, because games are above all else supposed to entertain and be a fun experience. Whether we are ‘jocks’, ‘nerds’, ‘band geeks’ or ‘cheerleaders’ what right do we have to deny someone else’s fun?

The Spinning Wheel: Lessons Learned from the Video Game Crash of ‘83

June 27, 2009
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If there is something this recession has taught me, it is that life is cyclical. What goes up must come down. You reap what you sow. What goes around comes around. Insert any other clichés you can think of, but the point is, this isn’t the first financial crash we’ve seen, and it probably won’t be the last.

In 1983, the video game industry crashed. Warehouses were full. Stores had shelves and shelves of games they could not sell. Boys and girls did the unthinkable; they went outside to play. The industry had hit rock bottom due to a mixture of haphazard business decisions, poor game development and over saturation of the market. And unlike pinball machines, video games’ untimely demise was not because something better had been developed, but because they were too stupid to see the eventual consequences of their actions. Ok, the rapid development of personal computers as a means of gaming may have been a factor. But, for the most part, these companies had no one but themselves to blame.

Oh, and just to refresh your memory, this catastrophe wasn’t a two week fluke like Katie Holmes career. This depression went on for TWO YEARS. Not only was it solely responsible for the death of Atari and the extinction of the video game arcade, but ’83 saw America thrown from the top of the video game heap. It took a Japanese company and their drugged-out plumber to shock the industry back to life.

So where am I going with this? If life is cyclical, would it not stand to reason that there could be another video game depression in the foreseeable future? As in 1983, the industry is embroiled in a console war. Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft continue to produce a high number of games while simultaneously trying to undermine each other. By comparing the conditions that led to the crash in ’83 with the conditions we are living in now, it might be possible to shed some light on the future of the gaming industry.

Just as the Atari, ColecoVision and Intellivision feuded decades before, so now do Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft wage war on the electronic battlefield. To date, the three companies have sold nearly 100 Million consoles worldwide (with Nintendo outselling the nearest competitor 2 to 1). This doesn’t even account for handheld sales or PC gaming. Meanwhile, work has begun on the next wave of consoles. As far as software, first and third party developers have produced thousands of games for these platforms and show no signs of stopping. As in the 80’s, the market is flooded with products. How long before public interest begins to wane?

Then there is the question of game quality. Games like ET: the Extraterrestrial and Pac Man proved that Atari didn’t care how shoddily the games were produced because they figured the public would buy anything. Modern companies are no less susceptible to this trap. For every good game there are five mediocre ones. Yet, with sales as high as they are, it can be very tempting to churn out ‘just another game’ to make a quick buck. And what about replay value? I could play Mario or Galaga for the rest of my life and they would never get old. How many games do you own now that you have played once and sold back, or that just sit on your shelf collecting dust (i.e. Bioshock)? Is this all sounding scarily familiar?

Now everyone calm down. I’m not suggesting that the end of the video game world is nigh. I’m just providing a kick in the balls to make sure you’re still paying attention. If the Video Game Crash of ’83 has taught us anything, it is that, like the government, there needs to be a system of checks and balances. The companies must continue to push the envelope as to keep consumers from becoming stagnant. On the other hand, the consumer must continue to ensure that the industry sells quality items. As soon as they stop innovating or we stop investigating, the system breaks down. Companies: If a game sucks, don’t sell it! Consumers: If a game sucks, don’t buy it! If we follow these rules, we can ensure that the past will never repeat itself.

-Jared