FGC #499 Ballz

BALLZ!In the early 90s (practically the infancy of gaming as we know it) there was a tremendous controversy over videogames, sex, and violence. There were concerns that, since videogames had progressed past being red dot versus blue dot and now featured tremendously less abstract decapitations, videogames were profane and poisoning the poor kiddies playing them, and, please, won’t someone do something to protect us all? In a move that certainly wasn’t just a shortcut to placating the masses, the Entertainment Software Rating Board was founded in 1994. It was thus to be the job of the ESRB to rate games according to their content, and clearly label every release with information denoting it as “E for Everybody” to “M for Mature”. However, a year earlier, Sega of America introduced the Videogame Rating Council, a slightly more primitive version of the ESRB that had much the same goal (pacifying Karen). In this case, we had three ratings: GA for general audiences, and two version of MA (mature audiences) with two different ages: 13 and 17. Games that earned a MA-17 rating included Lethal Enforcers and Mortal Kombat 2, while MA-13 went to the likes of Super Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat (1), and Lunar: The Silver Star Story.

And Ballz. Ballz is for mature 13-year olds only.

In a lot of ways, Ballz was improbably ahead of its time. For one thing, it’s a 3-D fighting game released about seven seconds before the era where that was the only fighting game style available. Shortly before the release of Tekken or Battle Arena Toshinden, here was a fighter taking place on a “real” 3-D plane where you could just as easily side-step around a fireball as jump. There are even techniques involved here that would become standard within the genre, like dodge rolling away from a fallen position, or grappling with an opponent in a manner that is impossible (or at least boring) in 2-D titles. And there are some systems that never caught on that could be very interesting in the right hands. Every character can morph into every other character. Could you imagine that in a more robust fighting game engine? You’re fighting the entire roster at once every time! High level play in such an environment could be amazing! Counter pick after counter pick until the timer runs out!

Bad dino!But one feature that was certainly adopted by Ballz’s fighting game descendants is the overt bombast of a seemingly average fight. The fighting game genre has always been “loud”, and anyone that spent ten seconds in an arcade in the early 90s could tell you exactly how many sonic booms were tossed by Guile in an afternoon (the answer is infinity plus one). But, as fighting games evolved in graphics, they too evolved in piercing presentation. Possibly as a result of copying real-world, “real” sports, fighting games went on to adopt cinematic staging by standardizing features like replays, wrestling-esque taunts, and announcers. As a result, the average fighting game nowadays is chattier than your average JRPG, and we’re never allowed to forget that the soul still burns. Whether or not this makes things better is up to the player, but it’s pretty clear that if you play a Japanese fighting game, and it doesn’t have seven different settings for “announcer”, toss on your hazmat suit, because you’re handling toxic garbage.

Ballz has its own announcer. Its announcer is just a little more… silent than the modern incarnations.

Ballz’s designers knew the game had to drip attitude, and that that wasn’t going to be properly conveyed by a simple fight between a ballerina and a rhino. No, they needed something more. Silent protagonists were not going to cut it, and primitive 16-bit cartridges weren’t going to support the literary magnum opus required of Ballz. What Ballz needed was special. Ballz needed a damn Jumbotron ™. Ballz decided to screw subtlety to the sticking-place, and just ram a gigantic television screen into the background. Maybe even a couple! And this screen could display taunts, announcements, and a comprehensive running fight commentary in the background. So, during each and every fight, you’ve got a background that is expounding such complicated thoughts as “administer smackies” while a few lesser screens display what appears to be an animated GIF of fireworks before displaying the game’s logo. Is it distracting? Of course! But does it convey exactly what Ballz is all about? Also yes! While it is always confusing who the hell is “talking” through the Get 'emvarious screens (some are clearly statements by the combatants, but there seems to be an omniscient “narrator” somewhere in there, too. And then there’s some random malcontent that really wants you to “taunt the ostrich”…), all of the statements stick to the basic theme and attitude of Ballz. It’s irreverent! It’s anti-establishment! In a world of sober Fatalities and Cinekills, Ballz is juvenile and insolent. Ryu is seriously trying to test his serious skills in a very serious tournament, but Yoko the Ballz Monkey is seriously going to fart in his face. This whole game is a synonym for testicles! Get it!?

And it is for this reason that I must compliment the Videogame Rating Council on a job well done.

Initially, it seemed ridiculous that this title would be rated MA-13. It’s silly! It’s a “violent” videogame, but all the characters are made of multi-colored balls. They are barely human shaped, and the idea that this title could be taken seriously in any legitimate way seems as ridiculous as a sumo wrestler tackling a kangaroo (which, to be clear, can happen in Ballz). Ballz being rated MA-13 literally puts it on the same level as the infamous Mortal Kombat, and, unless there’s some missable stage hidden around here, there is absolutely no one that has their still-beating heart ripped out of their ribs. Mortal Kombat defined videogame violence for an entire generation, while Ballz is roughly as vicious as the Pixar logo. Did you see what that desk lamp did to that letter? I am amazed children are allowed to view such a thing.

But Ballz does warrant its rating. Not because it is a violent videogame, but because only a thirteen year old would enjoy this. Ballz has a tone that matches the way a young teenager farts in the general direction of authority. This isn’t high satire, this is a game precisely designed for someone that is just mature enough to be thirteen.

BUTT STUFF

And everybody behind Ballz knew it.

So thank you, gentle members of the Videogame Rating Council in 1994, for knowing that, too. You truly thought of the children.

FGC #499 Ballz

  • System: Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo initially, and then a “director’s cut” for the 3DO. There’s a system seller!
  • Number of players: Two fighters comprised of ever so many balls.
  • This sucksPort differences: This game was very obviously designed for the Sega Genesis (the three button control scheme gives it away), but it looks so much better on the SNES. However, Nintendo did not have its own ratings board, and demanded that Ballz remove its more risqué elements. There’s no almost naked butt to be found on the SNES version, and instead of starting with “you gotta have… Ballz!” the intro reads “you’ve got to play… Ballz!” One little change makes all the difference, apparently.
  • Favorite Fighter: Crusher the Rhino-Man is exactly the kind of Spider-Man villain that I want to see appear in more games.
  • Favorite Boss: There are five separate bosses randomly sprinkled across the single player campaign. The first three are all animals, and obviously follow the traditional threat graduation schema of ostrich -> kangaroo -> tyrannosaurus. From there, you’ve got an opponent that is a blue genie that transforms into other animals, but is not actually an animal. And then the final boss is a murder clown.
  • So there’s a clown factor? Boomer the circus clown is a regular fighter, and The Jester is the final boss, organizer of this tournament, and theoretical announcer. That’s two scary clowns in one game! There should be a videogame council that exists to protect children from that.
  • Did you know? Lamprey the Genie is so named because of the general pun on the phrase “Genie’s Lamp”. He has nothing to do with eels. Thank God.
  • Would I play again: Nope. There are so many other fighting game options that are actually, ya know, good. Maybe find me a version of Ballz where everyone doesn’t feel like they’re scooting around on rollerblades, and we’ll talk.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Bah. It’s #500. Let’s keep it a surprise. Tune in Friday for something or other. I’m sure it will be nice. Please look forward to it!

Nevermind...

FGC #498 DK: King of Swing

MOAR APESLet’s hear it for Donkey Kong, the incredible ape that only has a few actions, but can do ‘em a million different ways.

… Or at least three.

To start, we have to address DK’s most hated rival: Mario. Or… well… they seem to be getting along pretty well at this moment, but they do have the occasional issue over copyright disputes. Regardless, as you may be aware, Mario has starred in a number of games. And it’s not just his popular adventures jumping across the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario has been everything from a tennis ace to a kart racer to a medical doctor. Mario had more spin-off titles before the end of the NES than many gaming heroes had individual “main franchise” games. Mario, designed to be like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, or Tom Hanks, could fill many roles and serve many masters. Mario has to headline a golf game now? Sure! Princess Peach can be caddy for some reason.

But there’s a problem with Mario appearing in so many roles: he has lost sight of his original moveset. Mario runs and jumps. It has been there from the beginning, and his greatest hits have ultimately boiled down to those simple motions. Mario jumps. It’s his thing. And even when Mario leaps from system to system, you have a basic idea of how his physics are going to fare in the new dimensions. … Except, when, ya know, there is no jumping. There is, at best, a tiny hop in Mario Kart. Mario nary jumps an inch in Dr. Mario. Picross is right out. And even titles that are not action games, but do pay homage to Mario’s ups, feature a Mario that is, at best, hobbled. Mario & Luigi or Super Mario RPG literally talk about the great jumping Mario, but it’s still not the primary way Mario interacts with his world. It’s telling how quickly Mario discovers a fire flower or hammer (or both!) in those titles…

The new canonAnd, in a way, that’s absolutely fine! You don’t need running and jumping to toss pills of dubious scientific origins at viruses, and RPGs shouldn’t have puzzles where the solution is “run better”. Mario has existed across genres and playstyles, and the fact that he adapts to each new challenge like he always belonged there is a feature, not a bug. Mario can compete in the Olympics, and his caretakers don’t have to find a way to squeeze a mystical mushroom into the already complex, shot put-based gameplay.

But that does mean Mario loses something along the way. If you pick up Mario Kart expecting typical Mario gameplay, you’re going to have a bad time. If you only want a traditional Mario game, but with a whole lot more dialogue, then the latest Mario RPG is going to leave you wanting. Mario might be right there in the title, and he might be the focus of the core concept, but that’s no guarantee that Mario will be the Mario that you remember. Mario is always going to be Mario, yes, but there’s no promise his latest outing is going to feature a Mario that simply runs, jumps, and occasionally menaces turtles.

Donkey Kong, though, now there’s a reliable ape.

The Donkey Kong official timeline is a little blurry, but the first playable “Donkey Kong” was definitely Donkey Kong Junior. DK Jr. controlled much like Mario, though with the moveset addition of “can climb”. This was required across all levels, and, in some stages, was little more than an evolution of Mario’s ability to “press up”. However, some levels (including the finale!) were almost entirely climbing based, so, while a horizontally traveling DK Jr. was very similar to his father’s captor, an ape on a vine was a different animal from a plumber on a ladder. As such, we learned the one thing that DK has over Mario: he’s an experienced climber. DK Tarzan, Mario plain.

Spikey!Then Donkey Kong took some time off to discover himself, learn math, figure out how ties work, and eventually returned a decade or so later. The “new” Donkey Kong of Donkey Kong Country was not confined to a scant few stages, but had an entire, enormous island to explore. He had his own reptilian villain, a fresh addiction to yellow fruit, and a little buddy that was so happy, he’s doing cartwheels. But Donkey Kong? Donkey Kong, at his core, was still doing the exact same things. He ran. He jumped. He swung on vines. The only new addition for the player was DK having some offensive options, like tossing barrels, but that was something the big guy did right from his first appearance (even if the player didn’t have any input on when he did it). Donkey Kong felt different from his DK Jr. days, but the same basic moves were all there. To some, this might seem like the old monkey couldn’t learn new tricks, but to others, this was glorious familiarity. And that’s very important when a videogame character resurfaces on an entirely new system with unfamiliar graphics.

This iteration of Donkey Kong stuck around for a generation or so, and stayed consistent (give or take a coconut gun that can fire in spurts). And then, once Donkey Kong (and Nintendo) separated from Rare, things got interesting.

Four years after Donkey Kong 64, Donkey got his own official Nintendo Peripheral. The DK Bongos were a pair of bongos (of course!) poorly posing as a controller. They were Nintendo’s answer to the Taiko Drums or Guitar Heroes of other systems, but they were used for more than mere rhythm games. The DK Barrels led to not only the prerequisite Donkey Konga, but also Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. DKJB was controlled entirely via bongos, and felt very different from every action platformer that had ever come before. But you know how DK navigated this brave new world? He ran, jumped, and swung on vines. DK: Jungle Beat felt wholly new and different from literally any game that had come before, but Donkey Kong was still very much Donkey Kong. And that familiarity is a godsend when you’re trying to grapple with a controller that somehow involves clapping.

He can breathe anywhereAnd then DK’s experimental phase continued with DK: King of Swing. In this adventure, our dear Donkey Kong can run and jump, but he isn’t so much into those ground-based activities anymore. Donkey Kong has taken to the skies, and is going down swinging. Or up? He’s still going in whatever direction you want. In fact, he’s going in every direction, as the gameplay of DK: King of Swing is literally going in circles. The primary challenge involved is stopping the big guerilla’s rotation at exactly the right time. In this manner, DK is able to do all his usual moves, as “jumping” or “throwing” are now simply lesser facets of “twirling”. It’s an entirely different way to control Donkey Kong, but his moves are still familiar.

And that’s important when adapting your protagonist to different gameplay. Let’s face it, DK: KoS is the sequel to Nintendo’s long forgotten Clu Clu Land. This is the evolution, the “super” version of a game that was released in 1984. But it is not “a Clu Clu Land” game. This is unmistakably a Donkey Kong game. DK has a certain heft to his movements that is completely absent from other platformers. It’s the same weight that allowed him to roll off a cliff to grab a K emblem in the Donkey Kong Country titles. It’s the same weight that allowed DK to be controlled by frantic bongo drumming. It’s even right there at the beginning when DK Jr. cut across a stage with a well-placed jump on a spring. That same monkey momentum was taken to Clu Clu Land’s basic setup, and allowed for a hero that could propel himself through the air with a spin and a flourish. This is Donkey Kong moving like he has never moved before, but he feels right while performing those familiar physical feats.

Ouch!And that’s why Donkey Kong works. That’s why DK: King of Swing, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, and his later return to Donkey Kong Country all work. Donkey Kong has been consistent in his appearances for decades, and that allows for some superficially inconsistent gameplay. Even though everything seems different, it simmers down to something that is very much the same, and thus immediately understandable. DK: King of Swing is a very different kind of Donkey Kong game, but it works because Donkey Kong continues to be Donkey Kong.

So, congratulations Donkey Kong, you’re more consistent than Mario, and that allows you to feature in more experimental games while still maintaining your identity. You finally beat that plumber at something.

And I bet Pauline isn’t even going to notice…

FGC #498 DK: King of Swing

  • System: Gameboy Advance, and then nothing ever again. The game was well-received in its time! I think!
  • Number of players: There’s an entire competitive multiplayer mode that is separate from the main, one-player campaign. It’s a four player game as a result, and at least one player can be Wrinkly Kong’s Ghost. It is exactly as macabre as it sounds.
  • What about single player? For some reason, only Diddy Kong mode is unlockable as an alternative to Donkey Kong. I’m not certain why the likes of Dixie or Funky are not allowed to also fight the lizard king, but Diddy can play hero all he wants. Maybe it’s because he has so much experience with kart racing heroics.
  • Here we goHey, isn’t Donkey Kong: Barrel Blast relevant to this whole discussion on DK appearances? Gogglebob.com does not formally recognize any titles involving sexy lady kremlings and Lanky Kong.
  • Story Time: DK King of Swing’s official plot is that the Kongs were going to have some manner of Monkey Olympics, but King K. Rool stole all the medals, and now DK has to venture through five or so worlds to reclaim all the gold before the games. What happened to simply having sports for the spirit of competition, Kongs? Do you really have to rely on these meaningless baubles? Do you actually need your patriarch to fight a gigantic, flaming bird so you can have a medal at the end of the day? You apes are too materialistic.
  • Favorite Character: Less you missed the obvious parallels, the star of Clu-Clu Land is the final unlockable character. Clu-Clu is a beast… and incidentally a silly little circle. I like simple designs.
  • For the Sequel: DK: King of Swing did receive a DS sequel titled DK: Jungle Climber. Its selling point is dropping the “cartoony” graphics of King of Swing for the more familiar “rendered” graphics of the 16-bit era. It’s otherwise a pretty pat sequel in gameplay and plot, and an inglorious end for this branch of the DK family tree.
  • Did you know? Given he hasn’t yet returned for Donkey Kong Country Returns titles, DK: King of Swing and DK: Jungle Climber were the last titles where King K. Rool appeared as an antagonist. He’s performed a few times since then as a generic “player” in baseball games and alike, though, so it’s not like Smash Bros. was his only spotlight in the last decade. Maybe we’ll see more of the big lug in the future thanks to Smash. It certainly worked for Fire Emblem
  • Would I play again: I’m always reminded how much I like this game every time I play it. It certainly has its share of weird bits (what’s this about eating my banana stock for health?), but it feels very right, so I might chase that feeling again. And I have to defend my King of Swing medals…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Ballz. Oh man, that game is balls. Please look forward to it, that, which is Ballz!

Weeeeee

FGC #497.2 Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

Please note that this article contains distinct spoilers regarding Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE. You have been warned!

Go Goku!There’s this moment in Dragon Ball Z at the end of the first significant story arc when Goku uses the Spirit Bomb. At this point, Goku has died, ventured through the afterlife, and returned from the grave when needed most to utilize a technique he could only learn from a nigh-god in another dimension. This attack, the Spirit Bomb, drains a tiny portion of power (“power” being vaguely nebulous in this case) from every living being on the planet, and combines all that strength into one focused “bomb” that he can hurl at his opponent, a giant monkey that is threatening everyone on Goku’s adopted planet (which is also Earth. You live there). In the grand scheme of narrative conceits, this is meant to be an important moment for Goku: he is the undisputed lead, the hero of this tale, but he cannot solve this problem with his own power. There is no solution here where Goku alone wins, so he must use this sacred technique, and, with the assistance of everyone on Earth, he can snatch victory from the hairy jaws of defeat. He can save the world thanks to the world. If this overarching metaphor isn’t obvious enough, Goku even whiffs his chance at pegging his opponent with this spirit ball, and requires another assist from another two fighters (one of which is best known for his propensity toward dying). Goku’s (currently) hated enemy is ultimately defeated by this spirit bomb, proving that it was not the super powerful Goku that was required to save the planet, but the strength of every person. Don’t put all of your faith in one “savior”, believe in the power of not one, but everyone.

And then Goku goes on to defeat every other opponent through hours and hours of one-on-one grunting ‘n punching. Goku is our Superman. Goku is our Jesus. All hail Goku, the guy that singlehandedly saved the world over and over again!

This happens often in fiction: the hero is the hero, and while there might be some moment or technique that uses “everyone’s power”, it all seems to come back to the one and only luminary. This is even more prevalent in videogames, as they are single-person experiences. Everyone in the party is working together to defeat the evil god du jour, but it all comes back to you, the exceptional player, making decisions, so the moral is muddied. And when you have RPGs that all but require the player to be the center of the universe, it gets even worse. That town lives or dies according to what sidequests you choose to complete, so it’s pretty obvious the world revolves around only you. Give me a moral about teamwork or whatever, fine, but in the end you intrinsically know that you are the only person that matters.

So you can imagine my surprise when Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE actually pulled off a “spirit bomb” finale without making its main character the center of the universe….

FGC #497.1 Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

Let's go to TokyoTokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE contains possibly the best idea in all of crossover games, and it is a complete waste.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is a crossover game involving the Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem franchises. However, while both franchises are unmistakably involved, TMS♯FE has much more in common with Shin Megami Tensei’s own spinoff: Persona. And, to be clear, that would the almost spinoff of a spinoff, the post-Persona 3 editions of Persona. Like those games, this is a story predominantly featuring quirky teenagers banding together to fight unknowable, wicked forces while also occasionally hanging out and buying maid costumes at the mall. In this case, the twist is that there is less of a focus on school and “mundane” daily life, as the heroes of the tale are also performers of varying disciplines. Singing! Acting! Whatever it’s called when you’re secretly a Power Ranger! The whole gang is entertaining fans by day, but clearing out monsters by night. … Or… also during the day… I don’t remember if there actually is a “night” in this game…

Regardless! While it’s always interesting to know whether or not your favorite is getting enough hits on Youtube or whatever, the meat and potatoes of TMS♯FE is based on beating back the malevolent mirages in dangerous dungeons. Mirages are essentially demons from another world that prey on the raw fan-power of citizens of our planet, and if these creatures are not defeated, then the whole of the population might not be able to enjoy the finer points of the latest Hatsune Miku release. And, somehow, it is revealed that the whole enterprise of this soul-sucking was supposed to revive an enormous black dragon that could theoretically obliterate the planet, so there are some stakes that go beyond whether some models are inconvenienced by a possessed pervert (it’s… a weird game).

Let's rockBut how do your mundane teenagers save their humdrum lives from this wholly fantastic threat? Simple! They team up with their own, benevolent mirages. These “good” mirages transform into weapons and armor (or at least costumes) for our heroes, and now our leading lady is hurling supernatural blasts from a flying, mechanical pegasus (is noting a pegasus as flying redundant? I suppose it could be a lazy pegasus…). And for anyone familiar with the Persona series, yes, these mirages essentially function like the titular persona “spirits” of that franchise. Everyone gets their own unique mirage, and it is technically this spirit that levels up and learns new skills. Itsuki Aoi can’t really handle himself in a fight against eldritch horrors, but his mirage, Chrom, has got the situation well in hand.

Yes, I said Chrom. Yes, that’s the star of Fire Emblem: Awakening and incidental opponent in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. He’s a luminary of the Fire Emblem franchise, and he’s the prime mirage of Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE. He is the main character’s mirage, so he’s the headliner of the Fire Emblem characters.

And that’s a good thing. In fact, it’s a brilliant thing! The number one obstacle to anyone starting a JRPG is that it is inevitably going to be “new”. The Final Fantasy franchise is amazing, but right from its first sequel, it has changed dramatically from edition to edition. There are always new characters, new systems, and new menus to navigate with every version. And it seems like the JRPG genre as a whole has followed suit, as we can nary get through a new Dragon Quest or Breath of Fire without a significant shuffling of the deck. Mario might get a graphical upgrade, but he’s always going to be able to jump on goombas, and it doesn’t matter if there’s a water gun strapped to his back this time. Meanwhile, the latest Final Fantasy might introduce its hottest protagonist as Sticky Wicket the Gibbering Thicket, and he may or may not even have a basic “fight” command. Final Fantasy 16 features the ARQ battle system, and you may only attack when the global price of oil has reached a high point. You’ll get used to it!

We're all real!But the benefit of the crossover integral to Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE allows the user to skip that horrid “getting to know you” phase. Most obviously, the battle system of TMS♯FE combines the basic flow of Persona encounters with the nomenclature of both Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem, so if you’re familiar with either franchise, you’re going to recognize the myriad of arrows you’re supposed to rain down on this mounted opponent. And the mirages serve much the same purpose, but to grease the plot in the same way as the battle system. Itsuki Aoi is a completely new character created exclusively for this adventure, and, out of the box, he could be anything. Is he aloof and distant like Squall? Is a he a debonair playboy like Zidane? What kind of protagonist is he? Well, his mirage, his “persona”, is Chrom. And that tells us a lot! This isn’t just a nebulous mythological creature like what we’re used to seeing in Persona: this is a particular, defined hero that has appeared in another game. Chrom is the star of Fire Emblem of Awakening, and there’s an entire game’s worth of story and plotting that will tell us exactly how Chrom would react to a situation. This isn’t to say that Itsuki Aoi is Chrom, but given these characters are inextricably tied together practically from their respective introductions, we do have a general idea how Itsuki and Chrom are similar. We don’t need to wonder what kind of protagonist Itsuki is supposed to be, because we’re quickly given a definitive answer: he’s like Chrom.

And this is an amazing way to handle a crossover. You can have your cake and eat it, too! You get to introduce all-new characters with unique motivations and designs, but their immediate association with established characters from another established franchise allows the player to instantaneously identify and, more importantly, identify with the new class. It’s the reason there is always a Link in every Legend of Zelda (he is always strong, but kind), and even the reason Chrom exists in the first place. Back in Fire Emblem Awakening, you were supposed to see “this guy looks like Marth” and immediately assume he is the next heroic lord of the franchise. New character, old archetypes. And using this immediate familiarity in conjunction with a crossover grants players an opportunity to see disparate franchises come together and immediately understand their apparent links.

It’s just kind of a shame that this idea was wasted by relying on the Fire Emblem franchise.

Away we goLook, I know I’m biased. As I pointed out back when I first reviewed Fire Emblem: Awakening, I am not someone that has ever been a big fan of the FE franchise. I’m not generally a fan of strategy/tactics based RPGs, and, frankly, the way the franchise introduces a new cast of fifty randos with every sequel is daunting. I don’t have the time or inclination to go down the gargantuan rabbit hole that is the complete 30 year history of Fire Emblem.

But, that said, it would be nice if I even could.

Let’s see here… The first Fire Emblem game released in America was in 2004, far from the Japanese 1990 debut. From there, we saw the games featuring Ike on the Gamecube and Wii, but that was likely just because Nintendo was still smarting from the N64 years, and looking for a “Final Fantasy” killer… or at least one or two RPGs it could promote on its latest systems. Despite the Wii’s popularity exceeding certain kinds of bread (screw you, rye), Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn wasn’t a shining new dawn for the franchise. However, Fire Emblem Awakening, Fates, and Three Houses have been revelations across the board. If my twitter feed is any indication, Lady Edlegard is now the official Queen of Earth. However, that kind of popularity did not apply to Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, a Nintendo DS release from 2009. It was a remake of a game that was not released in America, and this remake was released in America with about the same level of hype as Blue Dragon Plus. Remember Blue Dragon Plus? Me neither. But it’s not like half the cast of Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is based on characters from Blue Dragon Plus…

It’s my own fault for not playing a random DS title from a decade prior, right? If I wanted to see Marth in action, I should have taken the chance back when I could. And I did play Fire Emblem: Awakening, and that game is featured as much as (if not more than!) Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. I should recognize everybody from that game!

Except…

Here she isThe second good mirage from Fire Emblem: Awakening that is introduced is Tharja. Tharja is a sorceress that is one of the most popular characters to come out of Awakening (apparently #3 in a Japanese poll that I have to assume is part of the national Japanese democratic process). She is a mage that is very shy, but very willing to use her magic and curses to damn anyone that gets in the way of her goals. She is also canonically bisexual, as she will fall in love with the main character regardless of gender. And her outfit is about 90% transparent nylon, so there’s probably a not insignificant portion of her fandom that simply wants to see her use her dark magic in more gratifying ways. In short, Tharja is a popular and unique character in FE: Awakening, so it makes sense she would be revisited for a crossover title.

And I’d love to tell you more about her, but when I played FE: Awakening, I kinda killed her on our first encounter. Look! I was trying to rescue a queen, and…. It was a bit of a whoopsie, okay? My bad!

Which brings us to the other issue with this Fire Emblem crossover: Fire Emblem is a very variable franchise. You saw it back in the day with permanent death options meaning some support buddies might not live to see the plot past the first chapter, and you see it today with Three Houses and three entirely separate stories dividing everyone’s experiences. Did you choose the Golden Deer route? Well, sorry about that reference to Edlegard being beloved earlier. You probably think she’s a bitch! And even within Fire Emblem: Awakening, you not only have the option of popular party members being killed, but about a third of the cast might not even exist if you don’t get the other 66% to breed like bunnies. Is Morgan your favorite character? Well I missed that dude or dudette, because my Robin knew how to keep it in her pants. There is a war happening, people!

Bye, friends!So this is Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE’s greatest strength and most glaring weakness: it relies on a complete familiarity with Fire Emblem. Rather than going the “easy” crossover route of only featuring the most obvious titans of its parent franchise, it features random dudes and ladies from across a few specific titles, and thus requires the player to be unerringly knowledgeable about everything in those games. It takes days to complete a Fire Emblem: Awakening playthrough, and you better have found everything if you want to truly understand the nuances involved in another hours-long JRPG experience. What could have been an excellent introduction to the Fire Emblem world is instead hampered by its own requirement that you already be an expert. It’s a crossover by fans, for fans, and it squanders its supreme strength as a result.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is a great crossover title, but it would be even better if I knew what the hell a “Draug” is supposed to be…

FGC #497.1 Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

  • System: Nintendo WiiU, and now (finally) on the Nintendo Switch. No excuses! Go play it!
  • Number of players: Three man party, one man player.
  • Just play the gig man: The music is great. I mean, this is a game that is based on half the cast being in the music industry, so the music better be good, but… yeah. It’s good. It’s very easy to see how this game is the secret Persona game before Persona 5’s crazy soundtrack.
  • I assure you!Favorite Character: Ironically enough, it’s Kiria Kurono, the songstress associated with Tharja. While I’m always going to be annoyed when a character is built up as some incredible badass, and then the gameplay reveals she’s just kind of a middling mage (see also Persona 3’s Mitsuru), she also appears to be the only member of the team that actually knows what she’s doing at any given moment. And, yes, her whole “senpai” role seems to be literally designed to be appealing to the average Persona/SMT/FE player (again, see Mitsuru), and her “cool, but secretly cute” personality is obviously engineered to be endearing. But I still fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and I’m not going to over think it. Maybe I’m just happy she could hit that black dragon’s weak points.
  • Is there any other reason you like this game: Oh, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

    ITS NUTS

    None at all.

  • Did you know? Draug is apparently a knight from Shadow Dragon, so that explains why I’ve never heard of the dork. According to the FE wiki, he is shown to have a comradery with two other characters, but this “link” only appeared in official art, and not actual gameplay, in his original games. So, yeah, that sounds like par for the course for the Fire Emblem franchise.
  • Would I play again: I’ll answer that shortly, as…

What’s next? We’re sticking to Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE for the moment, as I still want to talk about this game in a non-crossover context. So please tune in next Monday as crossover week is finished, but talking about the same stupid game in a slightly different way is back. Please look forward to it!

Achoo