MKK: Liu Kang & Raiden

Mortal Kombat 11 seems to kill the Mortal Kombat Universe (uh, spoilers), so, let us wake the Mortal Kombat Universe.

To kick things off, we will start with the twin protagonists of the franchise…

Look out!

Liu Kang: Liu Kang is the generic, lovable karate man that won the first four Mortal Kombat “tournaments”. He defeated Shang Tsung. He slayed Shao Kahn. Twice. And, finally, he defeated the rogue Elder God, Shinnok. And then Shang Tsung and Quan Chi broke his neck.

That’s when things started to get weird.

(Sidenote: how much does it suck that the most prominent, canon “fatality” was a random neck snap? I would have been all in on MK: Deadly Alliance if it started with a cinema scene of Quan Chi tearing off Liu Kang’s leg and beating him with it while Shang Tsung turned someone into a baby or something.)

Lookin' good, Looey

Liu Kang spent one whole title dead. Then, just in time for the Dragon King to kill all of his buddies, Liu Kang was revived as an extremely surly zombie. Unlike Scorpion or other “revenant” characters in the franchise, undead Liu Kang was simply a slack-jawed, shackled, shambling corpse of his former self. And you know what? People seemed to like that!

So when the universe got rebooted, Liu Kang was killed almost immediately. Okay, technically he was killed in an alternate version of Mortal Kombat 3, but it was still within the same game (Mortal Kombat 9) that revived him, so it seemed like it happened pretty quick. Anyway, Raiden BBQed Liu Kang to extra crispy, and then Liu Kang spent a solid game and a half being a corrupted evil ghost that wound up conquering Hell through a liberal use of bicycle kicks. And it all worked out anyway, because Evil Hell Lord Liu Kang absorbed Time-Displaced Young & Saintly Liu Kang, and they became Liu Kang+ who did a few things, and then blah blah blah, he’s the creation god of the entire Mortal Kombat universe.

Actually, maybe we should cover exactly how that all went down…

Zappy!

Raiden: Screw Liu Kang, here’s the real protagonist of the franchise. Raiden is a god. What’s more, Raiden is not one of those “Watcher” gods that is always doing his best to explain why he can’t use his godly powers to just make someone a goddamned decent taco. No, Raiden is a real “get down in the muck” kind of god, and if he has to electrocute a few guys while he’s wearing mortal skin, so be it, just means he can work on his sweet roundhouses while he’s hanging on Earth. The earlier Mortal Kombat titles went to great lengths to explain why Raiden wasn’t using his divine abilities to snap his fingers and instantly end all of his battles, but more recent titles completely forsake that kind of thinking, and, uh, I guess he’s just pulling his punches a bit when fighting Stryker, and that’s why no one’s head explodes at the starting bell.

Now, as far as what Raiden was doing during the Mortal Kombat tournaments… That’s where you can see the basic shape of the series.

Mortal Kombat 1 was your typical anime tournament for the fate of the world. As such, Raiden was just there to fly around and shout like an idiot every couple of minutes. His greatest contribution was giving Christopher Lambert something to do.

Mortal Kombat 2 was your typical anime tournament for the fate of the world, again, but this time they had a change of venue. Again, Raiden is basically just there to be everyone’s Big Tournament Thunder Daddy. Hm… I should probably check to see if that terminology could be applied to anything else…

Mortal Kombat 3 featured Shao Kahn invading Earth(realm) in a last ditch effort to conquer the whole of existence. As such, Raiden, a god of Earth, was not allowed to participate until Mortal Kombat Trilogy (Super Mortal Kombat 3 Turbo Edition). This was theoretically to show just how desperate everything had gotten for our heroes… but it just came off as the Thunder God got replaced by the Thunder Native American Dude.

It's electric

Mortal Kombat 4 saw Shinnok threaten the universe. Shinnok was a deposed Elder God, so Raiden got to take center stage, and rep the God Squad with Fujin, the God of Silent Farts. Liu Kang was the ultimate savior of the universe, but at least Raiden got promoted from “god” to “elder god”, which is really going to look great on his resume.

… Or not! Mortal Kombat Deadly Alliance was the story of how Shang Tsung and Quan Chi, professional second bananas, decided to kill Liu Kang and conquer the universe. The Elder Gods decreed that Billy Soulboy and Quan White weren’t the same kind of cosmic threat that had appeared in previous Mortal Kombat events, so they were going to sit this one out. But! Raiden disagreed, forsook his Elder God status, demoted himself to mere Regular God, and, for the first time “in game”, was the impetuous for the forces of good gathering under his wing (as opposed to just getting a paragraph of plot on an attract screen). Likely because Liu Kang was sick with a case of the deads, Raiden came off as the official protagonist leader for the first time. Unfortunately, this did ultimately end in everyone dying, but good hustle!

Mortal Kombat Deception started at the exact end of Mortal Kombat Deadly Alliance. Old Man and Bald Man accidently revived Onaga, The Dragon King, and then literally everyone (important) died in an attempt to subdue Onaga. This included Raiden, who kamikazed into a gigantic bolt of electricity that, at best, gave Onaga frizzy hair for a week. Raiden reconstituted, though, and came back… more than a little pissed off. Raiden descended into being, essentially, “Dark Raiden”, and spent the entirety of the title looking like he was ten seconds away from telling all his “friends” on LiveJournal how he really feels. The next day…

Mortal Kombat Armageddon was little more than an excuse for every Mortal Kombat fighter to come together and clobber the hell out of each other. Technically, it was during this time that Raiden revived Liu Kang as his zombie enforcer, but, canonically, by the time the “tournament” was over, Raiden had wound up “good” again. Which is good! Because the final two fighters were Raiden and weren’t-you-already-dead-twice Shao Kahn. And guess who won! That’s right, it was Shao Kahn! Whoops! Time for a do-over!

He's a god!

Mortal Kombat 9 starts with Armageddon Raiden contacting Mortal Kombat 1 Raiden. In order to prevent the creation of Mortal Kombat games not helmed by Netherrealm Studios, Armageddon Raiden relays the desperate message “He must win”. Unfortunately, Future Raiden forgets that all versions of Raiden are (is?) kind of an idiot(s), so Mortal Kombat 1 Raiden decides to screw up the timeline but good. Like, he thinks, “Maybe Kung Lao is supposed to win, I should send him in to fight.” And then Kung Lao dies. Or “maybe literally anyone else is supposed to win”, and then literally everyone else dies. Basically, Raiden winds up creating a timeline where all your beloved characters are dead… which is just like the end result of Deadly Alliance… but… uh… this time it happened way too early. Anyway, eventually Raiden kills Liu Kang because he was getting uppity, and saves the whole stupid universe himself by letting Shao Kahn win Mortal Kombat 3, thus invoking some esoteric rule that the boss character can’t get his own ending or something. The Elder Gods vaporize Shao Kahn, and the whole of the universe is saved thanks to fine print.

Mortal Kombat X starts with the events of Mortal Kombat 4, but, in this new timeline, only Johnny Cage is alive enough to save us all from Shinnok. Cage can only pull off a temporary victory (you know Liu Kang would have put that god in the ground if he wasn’t currently a zombie in his unholy thrall), and Shinnok resurfaces decades later, just in time for everyone’s kids to be main characters. Raiden tries to take a hands-off approach to this whole “renegade god attempting to destroy humanity” thing, and, like most Raiden decisions, that ends poorly. Shinnok nearly destroys all of creation (again), Raiden is captured, and winds up having to be saved by a magical teenager. But Raiden does help out, as he absorbs the radiant energy of Shinnok (or something), which only has the minor side-effect of making Raiden all dark and rude (again). Mortal Kombat X ends with Dark Raiden threatening Dark Liu Kang with the ultimatum that there’s only room enough for one fallen protagonist in this universe. And that proves to be true! Because…

Mortal Kombat 11 sees Dark Raiden and Lord of Hell Liu Kang in direct conflict. But then Kronika, Goddess of Time and mother of Shinnok, shows up and further muddies everything. Current Dark Raiden is unceremoniously wiped from existence, and never returns. However, time-displaced Mortal Kombat 2 Raiden appears in his place. Wait, to be clear, that’s Raiden from the Mortal Kombat 2 that took place during the rebooted timeline of Mortal Kombat 9. So it’s Mortal Kombat 2* Raiden. Got it? Anywho, MK2* Raiden winds up nearly killing MK2* Liu Kang (again), but then receives a flash of insight that apparently Kronika was always manipulating Raidens across time into murdering Liu Kangs across time, because the combination of Raiden and Liu Kang is too OP for MK. Raiden takes this revelation incredibly literally, and fuses his essence with Liu Kang (which, incidentally, winds up being a version of Liu Kang that is already the fusion of MK11 Liu Kang and MK2* Liu Kang). This creates Fire God Liu Kang, and Raiden kind of fades into nonexistence as Fire God Liu Kang reboots the universe as he sees fit. So the twin protagonists of the franchise become one as the story closes. Hooray! Symmetry! I think!

So, yeah, in short, it’s Raiden’s world (and timelines!), and everyone else is just living there.

Next Time: The movie star and the military star!

FGC #439 Trials of Mana

Get on the mana train!Once again, this old man is wondering about the world that may have been.

Today’s game is Trials of Mana, the sequel to the venerable Secret of Mana (and descendant of Final Fantasy Adventure). Unlike practically every other title in the Mana franchise (did you know there was a TRPG? Oh, and that weird “action” one for the PS2?), Trials of Mana follows Secret of Mana in an iterative manner. Secret of Mana was a gigantic mess of ideas slapped together for a hypothetical/doomed system that was never meant to materialize, and, yeah, it kind of played like something that was never really prepared for the light of day. Don’t get me wrong, I will defend the fun of Secret of Mana until my dying day (I’m considering an epitaph that reads “Here rests Goggle Bob, and Secret of Mana was good, actually”. It’s the only way future generations will know!), but even I know in my heart of hearts that the game is a hot mess. The battle system is half-baked, the world itself has a number of “cutting room floor”-based dead ends, and the plot is a hodgepodge of different concepts that eventually culminates with a skeleton wizard out of nowhere. Trials of Mana seems like an honest attempt to take the best ideas from Secret of Mana, improve on them, and produce a game that could be its “intended form” from the start of its production. Does it work? Well… mostly.

LOOK OUTFirst of all, let’s address the biggest issue with Secret of Mana and Trials of Mana: magic sucks. There is no “quick casting” in either title, and, whether you want to cast a simple healing spell or summon a meteor from hell to rain unholy destruction upon the battlefield, you’re stuck cycling through random menus, waiting for casting, and then pausing any and all action while the spell animation completes. Trials of Mana works slightly differently from Secret; Secret would freeze only the target of most spells, while Trials freezes all of the action on the screen for every single casting. And, against all odds, somehow both systems are the absolute worst. When your opponent is frozen in Secret, you can just pile on the commands (and faerie walnuts) to stunlock your opponent into oblivion. It’s not very… strategic. This is avoided in Trials of Mana, but the constant, never-ending pauses thanks to friends and foes casting spells completely obliterates any sort of combat flow. And Trials somehow makes the worst even worse, as many bosses are programmed to counter magic spells, but, thanks to the inherent lag in the magic-freezing, it’s very difficult to perceive the if/then of countering that is inevitably going to get your party killed. So, if you somehow wound up with a mage on your team, maybe it’s best to let them sit there and do nothing, because it’s always fun to have a character on the roster that is (going to make you) dead weight.

Though maybe it would be a good idea to take a look at the whys of whether or not a mage is currently weighing down your team. Not unlike many games of yesterday and today, Trials of Mana starts with a clutch of unfamiliar characters, and you are asked to choose half of them to be your traveling party. The first character you select becomes the focal protagonist of the adventure, and the second two both play out their signature stories in brief, “aside” arcs. To be clear, this does not employ the modern/Dragon Quest method of having a main character that is 100% meant to be a player avatar that eventually earns some narratively well-defined, though multi-choice, companions; no, in this case, six different playthroughs of Trials of Mana could potentially feature six wildly dissimilar protagonists. And the difference isn’t merely cosmetic: each of the heroes has their own hopes and dreams, but more importantly, they have their own final dungeons and final bosses. CENSOR THISThere are three “pairs” of overlapping finales within the full cast of six, so it would technically require three different complete cycles through Trials of Mana to see every last dungeon and enemy the title has to offer. And, yes, if you’re curious about every story in the Trials of Mana universe, you’re going to need six different runs of a 15-20 hour game (good news: you’ll probably cut that down to ten hours by your fourth quest).

This, naturally, brings us to the topic of alternate realities.

There are six protagonists in Trials of Mana, but only one hero can ever wield the singular, titular (in Japan) Mana Sword. And, as mentioned, each pair of heroes has a unique antagonist. Riesz and Hawkeye, for instance, battle a vampire, a cat lady, and some manner of plant prince; meanwhile, Kevin and Charlotte are pitted against a murder clown and another damn skeleton wizard. Naturally, it is the choice of protagonist that determines the final boss, and the other antagonists are forced to screw off and die at the midpoint of the adventure to make room for the real big bad should they not be the focus of the story. It just wouldn’t do for Riesz to not battle the woman that murdered her parents, so, sorry Gourmand, you’re going to have to leave now. Where do murder clowns go where they die? Batman should look into it.

However, this creates some interesting plot gulfs for our potential heroes. Take Duran, the stalwart knight of Trials of Mana. If Duran is the hero of the piece, he fights against the nefarious Dragon Lord and his disciple, the Darkshine Knight. Eventually, Duran learns that the mysterious Darkshine Knight is in fact his father, a knight named Loki who once fought against the Dragon Lord, and was presumed dead by his best friend, the good King Richard. To say the least, the relationship between the orphaned Duran and his now malevolent father is a bit strained, but it all works out for the best when Duran and Darkshine Loki reconcile and the Dragon Lord is tossed down a conveniently located open shaft to nowhere. Or something. Look, what’s important is that Duran gets an amazing amount of closure on the whole psychologically traumatized orphan thing, and Darkshine Knight gets to die knowing that his son has grown into a noble, strong, Level 40 young man. … Or he doesn’t, because Duran wasn’t the main character, and all he does is stand motionless in the throne room as a completely forgettable NPC. Getting better!In this situation, the Dragon Lord is slain by whoever winds up being the real big bad, and Darkshine sticks around long enough to deliver a dragon obituary before peacing out to nonexistence. Duran never learns of his lineage, and Loki never sees his son again. Oh well! He’s not the main character! Don’t worry about it, audience! Somebody else got a happy ending! Just be happy with that!

But that’s the kind of thing that inevitably bothers me. Sure, it’s only one iteration of the story, but, in one universe, Duran is left not knowing for the rest of his life. He could have been a hero with a healthy memory of his undead father, but, no, now he’s likely going to be in therapy for the rest of his days. Poor dude didn’t get a faery companion, a father, or magical friends that may or may not be able to transform into werewolves. In one universe Duran is the Hero of Mana, in another, he can barely leave a room.

And in one universe, a young Goggle Bob played Trials of Mana. In another, he didn’t get to play the game “for real” until he was in his 30s.

Trials of Mana was never released in America (in this timeline). It did eventually receive a fan translation, though. I played that game on a creaky old laptop without a properly working soundcard (ah, college life), and, while I certainly enjoyed the experience, it wasn’t exactly all that notable. It was a Super Nintendo game being played concurrently with the heyday of the Playstation 2, and Trials of Mana didn’t come off as revolutionary when Grand Theft Auto 3 was also on the menu. And, yes, the format didn’t exactly help, as my beloved laptop (so beloved because it actually allowed me to not be glued to the computer lab at 3 am) was barely capable of supporting the full Mana experience. I played Trials of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 3) because I felt like I had to complete such an important part of Squaresoft history, not because I was anxiously looking forward to the next level.

And then, sometime in my 20’s, I managed to score a repro SNES cartridge of Secret of Mana 2 in English. I played it for about five minutes before growing weary of holding a SNES controller again.

They're asleep!Finally, a few weeks ago, Square-Enix deigned to release Trials of Mana for the Nintendo Switch in glorious American-o-vision. And, for the first time since I ice skated uphill against my old laptop over a decade prior, I played through the entirety of Trials of Mana. And it was rough. The music and graphics are still gorgeous, but all the quality of life improvements that modern JRPG/action titles have presented since the turn of the millennium are sorely missed. The class system is opaque, equipment juggling is unpleasant, and, let’s be honest, who has the time nowadays to complete an entire game three different ways for miniscule plot changes? There are two whole dungeons I missed on my playthrough? Who cares! I would have to complete 80% of the game again just to see a new variation on a cave? I’ll youtube that different final boss, thank you. I am a very important man with very important places to be. That fro-go place can barely open without me visiting!

But in 1995? Back then, this all could have worked. The era of the SNES saw a Goggle Bob with a significantly greater tolerance for bullshit. Back then, a new game only came down the pike (of my parents’ wallets) every six months or so, so a title with three different completely separate paths would have been more than welcome. Spell animations wouldn’t have bothered my young mind, because, I like the turtledamn, did you see those graphics? And the class system that practically requires a FAQ to enhance your party? You better believe I wouldn’t give a damn about proper character optimization. I didn’t even know the meaning of the word “optimization”! Probably literally!

In short: if Trials of Mana had been released in its proper epoch, it might have been one of my most beloved games. It might have been another Final Fantasy 6, Secret of Mana, or even Chrono Trigger.

There’s an entire other timeline out there where Trials of Mana is important to me. Here, in this reality, it is a random novelty that happened to show up on Nintendo Switch.

Trials of Mana, I’ll always wonder if you were meant for better things…

FGC #439 Trials of Mana

  • System: Nintendo Switch. It originally appeared on the Super Famicom in some lucky regions, though.
  • Number of players: Is there really multiplayer available for this game? I know there are reports that the remake won’t have multiplayer “like the original”, but I thought this was another Secret of Evermore situation where the original only had multiplayer thanks to enterprising modders. I’m going to tentatively call this one single player. Maybe it’s just two, but not three? Dammit.
  • What’s in a name: “Trials of Mana” may as well be nails on a chalkboard to my ears. It’s Seiken Densetsu 3, you jerks! Or Secret of Mana 2! Trials of Mana? Really? Because “Trials” starts with “Tri” and that’s marginally related to the number 3? Is that the best you could do? Obviously, the title should be Secret of Ma3a. I mean, duh. Come on, Square Enix, get on the Mana Beast.
  • Speaking of names: Don’t tell anyone, but I can’t even get my own naming conventions together:
    ERROR TYPE MISMATCH

    It’s a secret to everybody.
  • Favorite Hero: Kevin is a bruiser that can transform into a werewolf to cause even more bruises. And he can learn healing magic, so when he’s not bruising, he’s keeping the party alive. And he can learn a spell that transforms physical damage into MP refills, so his bruising can become an unlimited healing battery. Kevin is my hero.
  • An End: During the finale, the previously mentioned Super Werewolf Kevin learns that his best friend is still alive (because Kevin is really bad at identifying a heartbeat) and was accidentally buried alive (by Kevin), his mother is dead, and his father is a complete dick. Couple this with previously transforming his rival into a baby that wanders off into the woods, Kevin has a really weird life.
  • TOTES MCGOATSFavorite Benevodon: We’re really calling them that? Okay, fine. My vote goes to Dolan, the gigantic goat monster that scales an enormous tower just to reach out and touch some Mana Heroes. Also: you can’t tell me that Dolan wasn’t originally intended to be the God Beast (there!) of Darkness, as how could a gigantic goat not fit the ol’ dark arts?
  • Did you know? Heroes of Mana, a strategy RPG for Nintendo DS released in 2007, is a direct prequel to Trials of Mana. It features most of the parents of characters from Trials of Mana, and includes a number of locations and antagonists (a few of them in surprisingly heroic roles) as well. It’s kind of a shame that no one cared about the Mana franchise in 2007, so this title is almost entirely forgotten.
  • Would I play again: Probably! Never mind the upcoming remake, I will probably give another Trials story route a shot at some point. It might be a while, but the gameplay of Trials of Mana works well on the portable Switch, so I’ll probably play it again as one of those “I can play and watch TV” situations. I’ll save state the story scenes for when I have a spare moment to pay attention…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight! Let’s boogie! And put the gun down! Absolutely boogie without firearms! Please look forward to it!

RUN AWAY

Wild Arms 2 Part 42: Goggle Bob and The Odessa Effect

Let’s Plays are inherently personal. Videogames are intimate experiences to begin with (how else would you describe a situation where you spend forty hours alone with your hands on your controller?), and expanding such an experience to include everyone willing to read/listen is immediately going to, strangely inversely, make that title more intimate to the Let’s Player. Let’s Plays, whether they be screenshots or videos, at least double the amount of time one dedicates to a game, so, assuming this isn’t a Player’s first rodeo, anyone going into a Let’s Play knows it’s going to be a long haul, even on a title as simple as Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles. On a JRPG, we’re talking about an experience that could literally take years.

This Let’s Play took years. Even if I were able to stay 100% on an update a week, these past forty updates would have taken nearly a full year. Why would I even bother?

Wild Arms 2 is a weird game. It is a late Playstation 1 JRPG that existed in that peculiar JRPG adolescence where everyone was simultaneously trying to chase the success of Final Fantasy 7, but also “advance the genre” in its own way. Many JRPG directors of this period had years of experience as being the audience for the likes of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, and an age of post-modern JRPGs was due. But everyone wanted that phat Cloud Strife dough, though, so we saw a number of titles that seemed downright at odds with themselves. A title where a chosen hero battles a group of anime villains but also eventually has to repel an encroaching abstract idea while disproving the very concept of heroism is exactly the kind of title you’d see in ‘99/’00. Wild Arms 2 has a narrative that is seemingly doomed to be bonkers right from the start, as it stands at the intersection of conflicting goals that is “make a Power Rangers game” and “say something meaningful about the world”.

And the translation doesn’t help. Wild Arms 2 is already toying with some intellectual notions for a “typical” JRPG, and the fact that Irving might wind up explaining the same concept using three different incongruous homonyms isn’t helping. What’s more, the translation completely neuters characters’ voices, so the only characters that seem to get individualistic nuance are the heroes that have non-verbal animations that clearly convey their place in the story. Lilka has a tendency to “sound” like everyone else thanks to a dull localization, but her constant cycles of stomping her feet or waving her arms convey the emotions of an impatient young lady. Unfortunately, the majority of the rest of the cast doesn’t get such consideration, and thus characters that should be standouts like Brad and Ashley begin to blur together. This ain’t Persona 4: the localization of Wild Arms 2 is not only confusing for actual plot purposes, it also does an incredible disservice to one of the more unique casts on the Playstation 1.

So we come back to the same question again: why did I, the venerable Goggle Bob, star of stage and screen, bother to dedicate my precious time to Let’s Playing Wild Arms 2?

The answer to that question is a long one.

(Like you thought anything I would ever write would be short…)

NOTE: This section gets incredibly personal. I just started typing, and it happened. Also, general trigger warning for overwhelming grief.

Venture with me back to the bygone time of my college years. In fact, technically the absolute beginning of my time at college. I was to start my higher educational time at Montclair State University, a college chosen for the twin reasons of its affordability and great distance from my parents. It didn’t hurt that Montclair was a stone’s throw from the always-exciting New York City, either. Everything was going swimmingly until there was a snafu with my housing, which would make my college life difficult, as I was looking at a 2 ½ hour commute from home. After begging and pleading and straight up calling a senator (“Let me speak to this state school’s manager!”), I finally received some on-campus housing, and I was all ready to start my college career, albeit a few days later than expected. I was able to “commute” to my opening classes, but I finally moved in on campus on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon.

It was September 9th, 2001.

Two days later, things got dicey.

Like most people at Montclair, I had a front-row seat for September 11th. My first exposure to the event was being in the campus library that Tuesday morning (thanks to my class schedule, maybe the only morning I was awake that entire semester), and having someone nearby get off the phone and shout to a nearby coworker, “Some idiot just rammed their plane into the World Trade Center.” That’s what had happened in that moment, too. It’s hard to describe now, but immediately after the first plane hit, it was just kind of assumed that this was some random accident. Some jackass had a pilot’s license, and did an unthinkably stupid thing. Regardless, interested in what was happening, I walked over to a nearby hill that overlooked New York City. I could see the already smoking first tower in plain view, and then, in a moment I’ll likely remember to the end of my days, I saw the second plane hit the second tower, live. Actually, strike that, I don’t remember that moment clearly at all. Over the years, and even there in that moment, my brain kind of recoiled at what was happening. In my memory, it’s practically some morbid comedy routine. I “remember” everyone immediately looking at everyone else there on that hill, looking at the nearby dorm “tower” that rose next to the hill where we all stood, and we all collectively stepped out of its shadow, generally fearful that that nearby building would be next. That, obviously, never happened. I’m still pretty sure 9/11 happened, though.

And it’s hard to describe to anyone that “wasn’t there” how 9/11 impacted the entire campus. For future generations and younger readers: no, there was not widespread panic and rioting on campus. We were mostly just… confused. Something no one talks about is that the World Trade Center was a broadcast tower, so nearby Montclair State completely lost its television for a solid 24 hours. Phones were still mostly land-line based at that time, but the local circuits were literally overloaded for obvious reasons. The only information source available was the internet, which was still fairly new as a “legitimate” news source. In that moment, we had collectively missed the memo on the coming War on Terror or the president urging for calm or whatever, it was just… annoying? Like, people were dead. The nearby New York commuter lots were filled with cars whose owners were never coming back. There was no one on campus (including myself) that didn’t know at least someone who could already be dead. In many cases, we were just waiting for those inevitably terrible phone calls. And, again, we had no real idea what was going on. It was generally assumed that this was a planned attack, but the full breadth of what happened (including the attack on the Pentagon) wouldn’t be revealed to us until that evening. Yes, there were rumors abound, but nothing was confirmed for hours, and, in such a situation, hours can last for years.

And that left a bit of an impression on the campus at large. I would say that literally the entire student body was a little shell shocked by the event. You would see it literally everywhere. When a plane flew overhead, people flinched. No one was comfortable living on the higher floors of the dorms. Visiting New York City went from a joyous event to what was seen as a risky, dangerous proposition. And one thing that seems to be rarely mentioned nowadays: the 9/11 “death cloud” hovered over NYC in thickest black for at least a full week, and looking at the skyline any day thereafter seemed… wrong. There was a constant reminder of death and destruction right there, always outside a nearby window. In the weeks and months to come, the world at large would mutate, but right there at MSU, every last student and professor had to deal with a tragedy that was much more up close and personal.

So, on that cheery note, I’m going to switch gears to talk about my freshman anthropology course.

I was an incredibly enlightened high school student, so I naturally believed that, having figured everything out, I would take the smartest route through college. My plan was to take all the superfluous/required general courses first, and thus get those all out of the way early, and then focus on my real major studies closer to graduating and getting a job that would actually apply these skills. NOTE TO ANYONE THAT WILL LISTEN: never do this. Fun fact: if you transfer to a different school, they’re going to have different superfluous/required classes, and you will have wasted your time. It happens. But, during the summer when I was barely past high school, my plan was to take courses that were ultimately required early, and if a side effect of such a plan was that I’d wind up inadvertently lumped in with a bunch of “seniors” just trying to graduate and get out, so be it.

So this anthropology course was pretty much exactly what I already expected: a large group of chunkheads of various ages that were only taking the class so as to graduate. Actually, the majority of the class may not have been chunkheads, but, given no one ever said a damn word, I’m forced to assume they were all maximum chunkheads. In that class, there was the professor, and there were exactly three people that participated in class. There was…

  1. Myself
  2. One random woman
  3. One man, the younger brother of the one random woman

The siblings had apparently arranged to take this course together, as senior and freshman, and had that naturally intellectual thing going on where they wanted to discuss everything. I, as you’re no doubt already aware, cannot absorb any information without gargling out like a thousand words on the subject. Together, the three of us replied to practically every question the professor tossed out, and I’m moderately certain every other person in the class hated us. Or they loved us. I don’t know. They could have appreciated how we managed to railroad practically every topic into unknown, “this won’t be on the final” territory, and they knew they could just sit back and relax while we prattled on about comparing ancient tribal tattoo ceremonies to going to the mall and getting some fairy princess ink.

How ever the other students felt about us was inconsequential in the long run, though, as the professor apparently adored us. Later in my college years, I decided that this was because it was a once-a-week, 6 PM Wednesday course, and the professor assumed the class would be dead for a solid two hours. We livened up the place, and I suppose we were rewarded for our participation. The three of us collectively could do no wrong, and I personally tested this theory when I turned in a midterm essay about a week late, and received absolutely no punishment for my tardiness.

Which would be why I decided to push the boundaries a little further during the final. There was an in-class test, and a homework essay component. The essay was ridiculously vague: choose an anthropological concept, either from the book or an outside source, and apply it to modern humanity. Could be anything! Take your pick!

My pick? That turned into an essay titled “9/11 & The Odessa Effect”.

You have to understand that 2001 was a lawless time before googling for a source was something any old professor could do. Assuming you claimed a source was “foreign” or “contemporary” (or both), you could basically cite your cat as a valid voice on a term paper. Yes, there could be problems if you tried such a thing at the higher levels of learning… but for a generic anthropology course? You could get away with it with zero issues. And, while I am unequivocally stating that this was the only time I ever committed such a crime, I am going to admit that I may have gotten a name for a source from Gamefaqs…

The time after 9/11 was a time of seemingly impossible nationalism. The 9/11 incident allowed the leaders of our nation to whip the majority of the population into a righteous fury that justified invading at least one country that had nothing to do with anything. And that seemed almost impossible in those early days, given President Bush had previously been involved in one of the most divisive election victories in (then) recent memory. On the day that I moved into my dorm, Bush was seen by half the population as a passable leader, and the other half as a Saturday Night Live punch line that stole an election and was about as qualified for the position as your average toddler; yet, two days later, President Bush was lauded as the one man who could steer us through these turbulent times, and people on both sides of the political divide put their differences aside to hang cardboard flags on overpasses and buy action figures named “Freedom: The American Eagle”.

It wouldn’t last. While the Forever War would keep going until at least the end of this essay, people began to drift back apart and actually question the administration that demanded we rename our preferred potato side dishes. The Dixie Chicks were able to wake us all up (and not Evanescence, oddly enough), and, soon enough, we were back to a nation where a healthy portion of the population couldn’t stand to hear the lies about “WMDs” ever again. We were, in short, back to normal in just a few years’ time.

But there in that moment, in those scant few months after the attack, we were united. We stood together against any threats that might try to take away our Freedom. Particularly, there on that campus, collectively shell-shocked and flinching every time we heard a plane fly overhead, we were ready. We were together in the one singular goal of doing whatever the hell we were told just so long as nothing like this would ever happen again.

And if you told us to impregnate some random twin so as to trap an encroaching universe and then attack a giant monster fetus, we would have been all over that.

I am rather annoyed with myself that I did not preserve that essay in some manner. However, to relay the basic gist of the essay, I claimed that the current nationalism seen in the wake of 9/11 was described only a few years earlier by the modern philosopher Eitarō Nagano (one of the directors of Wild Arms 2 with what I figured was a foreign-enough sounding name), who described “The Odessa Effect”, a phenomenon whereby people would rally behind a heroic leader if a malevolent enough villain rose to power. The theory was so named for the example Nagano initially put forth, which would involve a hypothetical terrorist organization named “Odessa”, and an imaginary nation named Filgaia that would instantly unite against said Odessa. For a touch of flare, I added some random bits about Nagano being generally disliked in his home country for also using Hitler as an example, and seemingly calling out his nation’s former leaders for siding with the wrong side. However, the bulk of the essay focused on 9/11, and how our unity would inevitably lead to a potentially corrupt leader making broad changes with the uncontested support of the nation, just as Nagano predicted. Truly, this “Odessa Effect” was unambiguously applicable to our current situation.

And I got an A for that bullshit.

The professor sent me a personal email (it was the end of the semester, there was no reason for us to ever be in the same room again) about how it was one of the most interesting reports in the class, and she was going to miss my unique insight into current events. Given my interest in the class and the fact that I was obviously doing research on my own, she thought, if I was undeclared, entering the field might be a good career path. There was something in there about needing “more people like you”.

In the full scope of my life, am I proud of such a thing? Well, I can safely say I felt downright bad about apparently impressing my professor to such a degree through writing about a videogame (wow, what a shape of things to come). And academia is important and…. Phhhtt… I’m sorry, I can’t get through that sentence. Dude, it was complete BS from start to finish, but I managed to create an anthropological concept out of a random JRPG that I remembered from like a year prior. I didn’t even have the game handy! I would have much rather written about Super Smash Bros Melee! But, somehow, it all came together well enough to impress my professor, and, while I did legitimately feel bad for deceiving her, I very much enjoyed boosting my GPA with a little help from a Playstation game.

And, ultimately, that’s the reason this Let’s Play exists: I felt like I owed Wild Arms 2.

Wild Arms 2 is not the best JRPG out there. It is not even the best Playstation 1 JRPG. It has its moments, but, from a gameplay and presentation perspective, it could easily be lost in the sea of “wannabe Final Fantasy 7” titles that would flood the market until the dawn of “wannabe Grand Theft Auto 3”s. It has some memorable characters, but they’re drowned out by a slapdash localization. The puzzles are forgettable, and, while some monsters might be interesting, the actual combat is not. Wild Arms 2 is, at best, a mediocre experience.

But, like so much media out there, it can stick with you. It can shape your viewpoints. It can become an experience that is permanently a part of you. In this case, it was the strange intersection of current events and JRPG philosophizing. Was Irving right? Would his plan work in the real world? Or was it all the result of one JRPG writer reading Watchmen’s finale right before starting some plotting? Global peace through uniting against a common enemy? It’s been done before. It’s been done better. But Wild Arms 2 did it, too, and it stuck with at least one player. And that player utilized that thought for a college class. That player decided that that decades old game was worthy of further examination. And, it may have taken an ungodly amount of time, but that player wrote a Let’s Play.

Thanks for being you, Wild Arms 2.

Thank you to everyone that made this Let’s Play a success.

And thank you for reading.

Wild Arms Mission #30
Finish a complete Let’s Play of Wild Arms 2
Status: Success!
Notes: Well, that sure took a while.

FGC #438 Fire Emblem Awakening

This is the current roster in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate:

Smash it!

Of the fighters featured, I have played games featuring all characters highlighted in black:

I see a pattern

Who did I miss? Well, it looks like the entire Fire Emblem cast. Whoops! Guess I’ll just have to go on not giving a damn about all those stupid sword animes running around.

It's the shieldBut when ROB recently chose Fire Emblem Awakening (reminder: I follow the rule of ROB, but not necessarily in order picked. It takes slightly longer to play Final Fantasy Mystic Quest than Super Contra), I decided it might be time. After all, I have declared repeatedly on this blog that I would follow Nintendo straight into the depths of Hell almost entirely because they have continually created games that are always amazing to play (even if they’re not always the absolute best in the universe). This is the company that is responsible for hidden, super insane Mario stages and the super guide block. Surely I can trust Nintendo to make an enjoyable experience out of a genre I traditionally despise.

And, besides, my Twitter feed at any given moment is about 80% Lucina fanart, so I was kind of curious about her deal.

So, how did baby’s first Fire Emblem experience go? Well…

Casual Mode is my new God

Going into Fire Emblem, I knew exactly three things:

  1. It’s a tactical RPG, meaning it’s mostly about moving your little dudes around a map
  2. “It’s like chess, but sometimes you make the pieces kiss”
  3. Perma-Death

Here comes some plotAnd, above anything else, that perma-death factor scared me the hell away from the franchise. I can deal with a TRPG, I can deal with anime sword people kissing, but I absolutely cannot deal with perma-death in a videogame. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: above all else, I play videogames to relax. I play videogames to fool around in a consequence-free digital playground. I do not want to play a videogame where I can kill people. … Okay, I play videogames where I kill people all the time. I don’t want to play a videogame where I get people killed. I can deal with fainting. I am okay with “Chrom will remember this” in a pre-written, novel-esque setting. But I do not want to relax by watching a daring and debonair archer fall in battle to some stupid zombie with an axe. And then playing the rest of the game without that character? Knowing there is always a… a hole in my party? And what if that warrior was married? Or had kids? Oh God! My only options would be savescumming or never playing the game ever again.

But Fire Emblem Awakening includes a casual mode where not only is perma-death completely ignored, but saving in the middle of a battle is completely allowed. Hooray! I can actually play the game, and screw up by sending my Valkyrie into enemy territory as recklessly as I want!

Looking into this detail after completing the game, I discovered that there was some controversy over the inclusion of this (filthy) casual mode. And my response to that? Hey, nerds, this is my first Fire Emblem game. Let me learn the ropes and still make progress with my training wheels on. I don’t want to feel bad for the rest of the day just because I forgot axe beats lance. Casual mode is unequivocally a good thing for starting players and people who want to play videogames to unwind while waiting in an immobile airplane due to “engine troubles”. I know it’s more complicated than that, Judy, we’ve been sitting on the tarmac for two and a half hours, I’m not buying this “we’re just waiting for the paperwork” excuse! … Where was I? Oh yeah, you eliminate perma-death, and Fire Emblem is suddenly about a million times less stressful.

And, yes, I can confirm that I probably didn’t get through a single battle without at least one unit “fainting” due to a lucky critical or a mistaken bit of movement. If every “retreat” was a permanent death, my final army would have contained about four characters and absolutely zero flying ponies.

But even without the punishment factor, Fire Emblem Awakening is still a TRPG, my most hated genre. How did that work out?

Fire Emblem Awakening is Surprisingly Zippy

Our hero!I have literally never played another Fire Emblem title (give or take attempting OG Famicom Fire Emblem for about thirty seconds around the time of Super Smash Bros Brawl’s release), so I have no idea how the actual gameplay of Awakening compares to other titles in the franchise. However, I can tell you one thing for certain: Fire Emblem Awakening is unexpectedly fast. I’ve long said that I dislike TRPGs because it takes for freakin’ ever to do the simplest thing (like, ya know, kill an entire army full of people), and comparing a TRPG to other genres is always going to make a TRPG look like a literal waste of time. If this were Fire Emblem Warriors (which, wow, I guess is a thing now), I’d have about 600 enemy units dead before I finished my first turn in Fire Emblem 4 Realsies. And who has time for that? I have a bunch of really fast, really fun videogames right here. They’re all around me! They will likely one day consume me! I’m gonna go play Mega Man, let me know when this eternal combat turn ends.

But Fire Emblem Awakening moves astoundingly quickly. Combat animations are actually interesting and dynamic, movement placement is as easy as dragging a mouse around the screen, and, if all else fails, you can rely on the AI to round out a turn (and hopefully not get everyone killed). Enemy turns move at an excellent pace, and, even when some random dude has four attacks versus two counters, a turn is over in less time than it takes to grab a shower burrito. Despite my own general prejudice toward TRPG slowness, Fire Emblem Awakening doesn’t feel like a waste of my precious time (that could be spent playing Mario Bros.).

roar!And, interestingly enough, this extends to time spent outside of the battle, too. “Equipment” as it is traditionally defined in a JRPG is limited to simply weapons, and most characters (save our tactician player avatar) are limited to one or two weapon types, max. So you grab your best sword, give it to your best gal, and call it a day. The end. Other stats, like defense, are controlled by consumable “powerup” items that either last for one battle or are permanent. So determine who is the most useful, feed ‘em a few extra magic shields, and we’re good to go. There is no juggling equipment to make sure everyone has ice armor for the fire cave, or investigating every single shop to determine if every female character has their proper Minerva dress. It’s just grab some gear and go. And going is good!

And that lack of extra equipment makes managing item bags a breeze. Everybody got their emergency elixir and a weapon or two? Fast gals got their keys in case of treasure emergencies? Great! Let’s mosey!

And speaking of moseying…

The Grid Ain’t so Bad

I have said before that I hate grids. But I can live with Fire Emblem Awakening’s general movement grid. Why?

I have no idea. Huh.

So many squaresI generally dislike grid movement because it feels completely limiting compared to “real” movement. People do not move in grids. People are loosey-goosey! We left behind the crosspad before we even got out of the 20th Century, so who wants to deal with an entire army that can’t even move diagonally? But, somehow, Fire Emblem Awakening just feels like… it works? It’s probably a side effect of the whole speed thing, but “playing chess” with these characters feels oddly natural. I’m going to chalk this one up to one of those “Nintendo Magic” experiences. Somebody knows how to make a land-bound elf and a tubby, surprisingly acrobatic plumber’s movement feel equally valid, so it makes sense that sword dudes would somehow feel natural being tied to invisible squares. Or maybe I just didn’t notice the grids because I was actually enjoying myself. Hm.

And speaking of enjoying myself…

The Plot is Actually Enjoyable (And Anime)

Full disclosure: I am a sucker for time travel. Lucina is Chrom’s child from an alternate future where a dragon decided to munch on all of humanity? And that dragon is the evil twin of one of your own party members, so there’s a future child and a future alternate bad guy? And there could be an entire literal army of other future children? Hook that to my veins! This hole was made for me! Something about time travel being my waifu!… Actually, yeah, “waifus” are kind of an issue here…

It's sad, reallyFire Emblem Awakening is a TRPG, but you’re also encouraged to… uh… breed your warriors. Practically your entire army can have relationships, and these relationships have a basis in dialogue (general between battle hangout sessions) and actually war gameplay (units teaming up and defending/assisting each other). In a way, this is a transparent attempt to further elaborate on characters that are inevitably not going to be involved in the legitimate plot (since standard mode allows for perma-death, technically every character except the leads could be dead within their introductory battle, so we can’t very well hang plot twists on their potentially limited existences), but it also offers a better way to “get to know” warriors that might be interesting in battle (that one turns into a giant ferret! What’s up with that!?), but are otherwise superfluous to the greater narrative. And it also scratches that visual novel itch that seems to have wormed its way into a number of titles (presumably thanks to one biggie). But one significant side effect of these interactions is that certain soldiers can fall for certain other (heteronormative) soldiers. And then they get married. And have babies. And babies inherit skills, return from the future, and become soldiers. And, oh man, Chrom started a forever war without even trying!

And, yes, I had heard of this aspect of FEA before playing the title. And, frankly, I was downright terrified of having to properly manage my relationships and “breeding” for perfectly tweaked future children that have all the best skills and advantages and hair colors. But you know what? It didn’t matter. I didn’t have to micromanage the relationships of these characters, and, give or take a bad ending for one of my luminaries that apparently became a sad drunk without a woman to keep him in line, there were no real consequences to this anti-waifu decision. Like “real”, non-casual mode, there was this entire facet of Fire Emblem Awakening that I could focus on if I wanted to, and it would always be there, but I could ignore it and still have a fun time. A few of my chess pieces hooked up, most of them didn’t, and that was just fine by me.

And you know what else is fine?

Class Changes are Always Cool

Look at this:

POWER UP

Damn, that’s cool.

Okay, I like this franchise now. I can finally say that I officially, uncompromisingly like a TRPG. Way to go, Fire Emblem Awakening.

FGC #438 Fire Emblem Awakening

  • System: Nintendo 3DS, though, given this was apparently the Fire Emblem that revitalized and popularized the entire franchise, I’d expect a rerelease of some kind in the future.
  • Number of players: Can we please, please get a 2 player TRPG battling game? Has this happened in other Fire Emblem titles? Were they any good? I want to know!
  • Yay!  Marth!Anime gonna anime: Of course there is a character that looks like a 12-year old girl but is actually a millennia old dragon person. Other than that, the “anime” of Fire Emblem Awakening isn’t really all that bad, and, with a more Western paintjob, the majority of this title could actually be closer to Tolstoy than Sword Art Online. Okay, that might be pushing it a bit, but this is a surprisingly brutal (re: high body count) story for what I was expecting to be a lot more bubblegum.
  • Mistakes were made: Apparently I wholesale murdered that one dark magician girl everybody is always talking about. I regret nothing.
  • Favorite Soldier: It’s weird, but I wound up gravitating to Lissa. She’s just involved enough in the plot to be present for notable events, and her general personality is an excellent counter to many of the more dour or incidentally blood-thirsty characters. And she can become a pretty competent red mage sage, which is always helpful. Oh, and she has an inferiority complex thanks to a magical tattoo, so that’s also fun.
  • Favorite Future Child: Chrom wound up with Sumia in my playthrough (remember: I do not care), so we wound up with Cynthia, Lucia’s little sister that apparently wants to become a hero… without any real idea of how to do that. And that works surprisingly well! Lucina is all doing the mysterious knight routine and cutting a swath across her own past… and Cynthia can barely figure out how to properly wear pants. They seem like siblings to me.
  • So now do you better understand why these characters are in Smash Bros? Not really. Okay, Robin is pretty damn cool, and surprisingly friendly for her “cool tactician” role… but she’s otherwise fairly unremarkable. Chrom is a generic hero that fights for his friends, so there’s not much there. And I'm so tiredLucina is a goddamn bad ass that bends the laws of time and space to get exactly what she wants and incidentally save the world… but she winds up being the lamest clone character in Smash? Dammit! The coolest one got the worst treatment! I suppose the camaraderie between Robin and Chrom is commendable/memorable, but, having just finished Awakening, I’d rather just see Lucina kicking ass and taking names in a role wholly her own.
  • Did you know? There are a lot of DLC and Spotpass scenarios available, and that appears to be what is intended as the “post-game” of Awakening. But did you know this was the first Nintendo title to feature DLC in any significant form? And the first Nintendo game to feature a DLC swimsuit scenario, because J/TRPG fans are horny as hell? The more you know!
  • Would I play again: I would be curious to see how a more “informed” playthrough of Fire Emblem Awakening would shake out, as I now know many things I did not know before (like who to avoid murdering). But I don’t think I will be doing that for a while, as, now that I have a Fire Emblem “base”, I can try a few other titles that have been recommended over the years. Awakening appears to be a great jumping-on point for the series, and I’m curious to see if this cast/gameplay holds up elsewhere…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Trials of Mana! Yeah! I’m sure that was a random choice! Time for the grand trial of the Goddess of Mana! Please look forward to it!

I admit it