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FGC #481 Mega Man ZX Advent

Have a mega timeI’m working on a theory here, and it’s that, despite the fact that Mega Man 9 is one of my favorite games and possibly one of the best Mega Man games ever, it also completely destroyed the Mega Man franchise.

And it all roots back to the history and evolution of Mega Man.

In 1987, there was Mega Man. The premiere of the Blue Bomber saw a robot that walks, jumps, and shoots. When he defeats a Robot Master, he gains that robot’s weapon, and can use it a limited number of times as an offensive option. This playstyle continued through the “Nintendo Years”, and saw six NES games and five Gameboy games. There were many pretenders to the Mega throne, but, by and large, Mega Man changed very little on the NES. A slide here, a mega buster there, but it all still went back to the same gameplay that was established in ’87.

In 1993, we were introduced to Mega Man X. X was, figuratively and literally, the newest model of Mega Man, and came with more than a few upgrades. He could dash. He could cling to walls. He felt more mobile than his stiff ancestor. And, on a very important but oft-ignored note, X could charge his robot master (now “Maverick”) weapons, and possessed an even greater ability mimic his opponents. Simple Mega Man would have never gained the invisibility of Sting Chameleon (Invisible Man?) from a fight, but X had the option to go incognito and fire off triple shots. Finally, “Mega Man” had an avenue to enjoy the more complicated Robot Masters that had been appearing since Wood Man first rained wicked leaves down on the battlefield.

Generations!1997’s Mega Man Legends was, unfortunately, an evolutionary dead-end for the franchise, but Mega Man X4 (released the same year) allowed a complete Zero to costar with X (he was technically playable in X3, but he was more prototype than man). The Mega Man franchise always put a particular emphasis on distance and how easily ol’ Mega could be defeated by simply bumping into an enemy, so it seemed only natural when the franchise went all in on a character that had more of an emphasis on close-range combat. And it was a change for Zero as much as anyone else! Zero used to be able to slash opponents from a distance with an armbuster and flying cut, but now he was limited to a sword’s length for combat. And it worked! Many preferred playing as the up close and personal Zero in X4 and future X titles, so it was little surprise when it was time for…

Mega Man Zero hit the scene in 2002. Once again, we had two evolutionary paths, with Mega Man Battle Network’s action/JRPG hybrid gameplay first emerging to great acclaim in 2001, and then Mega Man Zero curating the 2-D action a year later. MMZ could potentially be seen as a step back for the franchise, as singular Zero was technically more limited than X in his modular attacks, but, as the MMZ franchise evolved, Zero gained an arsenal that would put any other Mega Man to shame. And right from the beginning, it was clear that the point was never to give Zero another seventeen variations on Metal Blades, but create a smaller, tighter gameplay environment for an audience that had literally learned to walk alongside the little metal boy. Mega Man Zero’s Zero did not feel like the same upgrade we saw between Mega Man and Mega Man X, but it did offer a new, more intricate experience for the veteran Mega fan.

Seems familiar2006, four years (and ten games!) later, we received another two “sequel” franchises. Mega Man Star Force was our upgrade for Mega Man Battle Network, refining the basic gameplay and adding very important plot points about dinosaurs being killed by a lack of friendship. And, on the other side of the aisle, we got Mega Man ZX, the continuation of the Mega Man Zero franchise. In this world, the wars of Mega Man Zero eventually ended, and the heroes of that time were skinned alive and could now be worn like suits. Don’t worry! They’re still sentient “biometals”, so at least X, Zero, and all their frenemies can experience the joy/horror of being a fashion accessory for centuries! And the protagonist of Mega Man ZX watches their own personal Obi Wan die, which unlocks the ability to mega-merge the biometals of X of Z(ero). Thus, the titular Mega Man ZX is born, and they’ve got all the powers of Mega Man X and Zero. Finally! The lovers are united!

And, while the whole conceit of Mega Man ZX could have just been an excuse to give Zero a decent buster, the game really does feel like the conclusion of years of Mega Man and Zero games. Zero’s greatest strength was always its focused gameplay… but this left the hero feeling rather limited compared to his ancestors. Meanwhile, Mega Man had a thousand options for combat (or at least nine), but many of his adventures seemed overstuffed and… Sorry, the English language doesn’t yet have a phrase that translates to “too top spin-y”. But Mega Man ZX struck an excellent balance: the dedicated gameplay of the Zero franchise was here, but the options available to X were also fully integrated into every level. Mega Man ZX could “be”, essentially, Zero, or transform into a more mobile air-dasher. Or a water witch. Fireball bro. Cyber ninja. The hero’s got options! And each different form wasn’t just a matter of a slightly modified buster, they all offered unique mobility options, too. In a way, this is what was promised back in the ancient days of Rockman and his ability to mimic his opponents after a battle. Or maybe that’s just what was promised by Ruby Spears Mega Man…. Still! Whatever works!

And it must have worked well for somebody, because Mega Man ZX gained a sequel, Mega Man ZX Advent, the following year. And it advanced the Mega Man formula by being completely bonkers.

Kiss from a roseMega Man ZX Advent eschews the typical mega-sequel plan by ejecting its previous protagonist right out of the gate. What’s more, this isn’t even a situation wherein the “ZX biometal” is immediately passed to the next generation or some other similar narrative trick to explain sprite reuse. No, the hero/heroine of Mega Man ZX Advent initially acquires the A Biometal, granting them the ability to wholly copy any given biometal or pseudoroid. What does this mean? It means you can play as the bosses! No more “got a weapon” or “can play as ZX-H” or whatever, you can just straight up emulate any given boss in the game! And it doesn’t matter if the boss “is too big for most areas” or “doesn’t have legs”, you can just turn into that fish monster on land if you really want to! Worst comes to worst, you just lose a life, so don’t worry about it. You’ll figure out that being a gigantic alligator monster all the time isn’t the best choice eventually.

And, while it demolishes the tightness of Zero to make some sections of ZX Advent unerringly silly (“Quick! Turn into the twin cat-bears!”), what’s truly remarkable here is how much the player is trusted with these unwieldy toys. Mega Man Powered Up had been released the previous year, and it did its level best to make sure all of the playable Robot Masters were balanced and similar so Guts Man could (technically) conquer any challenge originally designed for Mega Man. There is no such equilibrium here: it’s a known fact that half the playable “party” cannot complete the game from beginning to end. Hell, a fraction of that group can barely even jump! But that doesn’t matter, because you can switch between forms at any time, and who needs to worry about whether Queenbee the Hymenopteroid can fit through a particular hallway? Just switch! The X button is right there! The ring menu means pausing the action isn’t too big of a deal, and you’ll be switching over to the appropriate pseudoroid with a few button presses.

And being able to cycle through a complete set of “Robot Masters” really felt like what Mega Man was always meant to be. Mega Man ZX Advent was the culmination of a full twenty years of Mega Man games.

And it turns out it really was the zenith of the franchise. There was nowhere to go but back.

The secret bonus of Mega Man ZX was the ability to play as Omega, the super-powered version of Zero that was supposed to be his original, unstoppable body (long story). The secret bonus of Mega Man ZX Advent was the ability to control Modal a (case sensitive), which…

Pew pew

Looks a little familiar.

Model a was clearly a deliberate move, as the next Mega Man title to come down the pike was Mega Man 9, a retro title released in 2008. After years of Mega Man upgrading to match the graphics of the day, this was the first Mega Man title to fully embrace the NES aesthetic, and return to (faux) 8-bits. This was the first Mega Man to not try to upgrade old titles to modern sensibilities (like Mega Man X Maverick Hunter or Mega Man Powered Up) but take gameplay back to older standards while offering new and interesting experiences. But, retro or not, Mega Man 9 was an excellent game, and, while it may not have featured a “modern” Mega Man, it was the type of experience that could only be produced by people with decades of experience in the genre.

Which is great, because Mega Man 9 was apparently the end of any experimentation in the franchise.

CHOMPSince the release of Mega Man 9, we’ve seen Mega Man 10 (another retro title) and Mega Man 11 (something a little more modern). Aside from that? Nothing. No Mega Man X, Mega Man ZX, or Mega Man Battle Network. No Mega Man: Ultra Plus or whatever could have been next for the franchise. Mega Man 9’s success seemed to cement the concept that gamers just want classic, unchanged Mega Man, and that’s what Capcom is going to keep cranking out. We’ve seen about seventeen different rereleases of Mega Man 3, but nary a peep about Mega Man Legends 3.

(And, yes, we could blame this all on Keiji Inafune, the godfather of Mega Man, leaving Capcom, but that ignores the fact that we have Mega Man 11, and it’s probable there is a reason Inafuking isn’t at Capcom anymore…)

Was Mega Man 9 a good game? Yes. Hell, it was amazing. By comparison, is Mega Man ZX Advent a bad game? Well, it’s not bad, but it is very sloppy compared to Mega Man 9 (or even Mega Man Zero 4). But it’s a lot of fun, and its experimental side is arguably what Mega Man fans have wanted all along. But since even more fans simply wanted good ol’ Mega Man, Mega Man 9 was the end of the franchise’s 20 years of experimentation. Mega Man 12 may be allowed to have a gimmick or two, but it better be the OG Mega Man, or it ain’t getting greenlit.

Mega Man 9 is my favorite game that murdered its own franchise’s creativity.

And Mega Man ZX Advent is my favorite game where you can play as Bifrost the Crocoroid.

FGC #481 Mega Man ZX Advent

  • System: Nintendo DS initially, and now available for PS4/Switch via the Mega Man Zero/ZX Collection. This game was actually chosen by Random ROB a while ago, but I decided to hold off for the modern collection. And it’s good!
  • Rock out!So you spent an entire article bitching how Capcom ignores the experimental Mega Man titles, and they just released one of the experimental Mega Man titles? Yes. Shut-up.
  • Number of players: Grey or Ashe, but only one at a time.
  • Favorite Pseudoroid: Vulturon the Condoroid is a heavy metal vulture that summons robot zombies and flies through the air strumming his murderous electric guitar. Just… just how are you supposed to compete with that? Block Man can’t touch that with a ten foot block.
  • Second Runner-Up: But all of the pseudoroids are amazing in this game. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to just phone in a number of Robot Masters that are all basic variations on a theme (like the Guardian Quartet), but we’ve got giant bees dragging around enormous hives and twin dog monsters and Metal Sonic and… Well, the list goes on for a while.
  • Say something mean: The empty rooms that can be uncovered but won’t activate until you speak to the right random Ranger to initiate a sidequest are the absolute worst. The fact that there are like 50 “golden skulltula”-style monsters to hunt down, and the quest giver is tucked away in one of the final levels is somehow even beyond the absolute worst. Some kind of… Mega Worst.
  • An end: Complete with the secret ending, the finale of Mega Man ZX Advent sets up a sequel featuring evil biometals, a turncoat leader, and an uncertain future that we know will culminate with Tron Bonne running around a sunken world. But what happens next? Who knows! Like Mega Man Legends, this branch of the Mega Man franchise never made it to a full trilogy, so here we sit waiting for more.
  • BUZZ!Did you know? Chronoforce the Xiphosuroid, the horseshoe crab-looking pseudoroid that can control time, is named for the Xiphosura order, which includes the Tachypleus tridentatus aka kabutogani. And that’s where we get the name for the Pokémon, kabuto.
  • Would I play again: Did I mention I like playing as the giant crocodile monster? Because I very much enjoy playing as the giant crocodile monster.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Gradius V for the Playstation 2! Keep your options open, Vic! Please look forward to it!

FGC #479 Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse

Here comes Grant“Grant? Grant, my man, how are you? How’s the family? Good. Good. Look, I’m calling because I have a bit of an opportunity for you. You ready? You sitting down? Okay, great, look, I got the call from Konami, and they want you to star in the next Castlevania game. Yes, you! No no, look, I understand what you’re saying. Yes, there is technically a Belmont starring in this game. No, not Simon this time, it’s… let me see if I wrote this down… it’s Ralph? Is that right? Ralph Belmont. He’s supposed to be Simon’s grandfather or something. So, okay, yeah, you’re not the star, but you’re going to be one of the stars in the first ever Castlevania game featuring more than one vampire slayer. And you’re going to be one of the good ones, too! Like, without question, you’re going to be the first partner that can be recruited. What? Oh yeah, there are two other people involved, some wizard lady and a bat-dude. I think he’s supposed to be related to Dracula? No, don’t worry about it, he’s a standup guy. At least… I think he’s a guy. Half guy? Is that a thing? What? Yeah, sorry, I’m getting off track. So, yeah, you’re going to be the first ever person to team up with a Belmont to take on Dracula! You! Grant Danasty!

“No… Buddy, do you understand what I’m saying? You’re not going to get a whip. You, and only you, are going to have an unlimited cache of daggers. Yes, Ralph gets daggers, too, but you have infinity daggers. And not only that, but you know how the Belmont dude in those other games was all slow and everything? Well you get to jump around like Mario. I know! Kids love Mario! You’re going to be the Mario of Castlevania! Except with knives! And I guess you can use an axe, too, so that way you get a powerup power like everybody else. I mean, between you and me? That Dracula Kid only gets a cruddy stopwatch. You’ve got an axe! Like a dwarf! What? No, I’m not calling you short. I’m calling you strong! Castlevania 3: Starring Grant Danasty is going to be a totally different experience. I don’t see why anyone would use any of those other so-called heroes at all!

Bad guy!“Oh, but one teeny tiny admonition: You have to play a monster in your first appearance. The whole deal is, like, Dracula cursed you to be a monster in some clock tower, so you have to fight Ralph and climb around on walls and scream like you’re a big, bad guy. I think some prosthetics are involved. But it’s good! Like, sure, you have to act like a monster, but it’s all because you have some tragic backstory with a lost group of bandits that have been fighting against Dracula taking over the local countryside. Oh, and it all ties into your ending, too. The vampire guy just stands there and broods, but your finale sees you rebuilding the town and being remembered as a hero.

“So, trust me, man, you are going to love all of this. You’re going to be synonymous with Castlevania! Castlevania 3: Legacy of Grant! Tell me you’re down for this, and I’ll let Konami know they’ve got one acrobatic ace on Ralph’s team!”

—-

Get 'em“Grant, my main man, calling again because I’ve got some great news: you’re going to America, baby! Castlevania 3 got picked up for localization, so you’re going to be an international star! Burt Reynolds, Madonna, and now Grant Danasty! You are gold, baby!

“Just, you know, few caveats. Nothing, really, but I figure I should mention ‘em to you. Just as a courtesy thing. First of all, and this shouldn’t really impact you at all, but they’re changing a few graphics here and there. Some naked statues are a little less naked, some crosses are a little less cross-y… You know, those whacky Americans, they got all kinds of problems. And… uh… well, you know, same vein and all, they may have… well, I think the parlance is “nerfed” your appearance a little. You know how you had all those daggers? Well, now Grant is stuck with one single danger, and you’re not allowed to throw it. … Yeah, look, I understand what you’re saying, but you’re looking at this all wrong. You’re more of a challenge now! You know you completely wrecked the Japanese version with your ability to crawl through shortcuts and pelt that cyclops with your daggers, so now there’s a reason to use dopey ol’ Trevor. … Oh, yeah, they changed his name. ‘Ralph’ didn’t really resonate in the States… Oh, yeah, no, I hear you, but… Yes, Alucard gets to keep his fireballs. No, buddy, I don’t think that just because Alucard’s mobility is infinite and you have a fiddly jump to… Grant, seriously? Listen to me. You’re going to be great. They’re going to love you! Grant Danusty is going to be a household name. … Grant Danasty. Yes. What did I say? Sorry, slip of the tongue.

“Oh, one last thing. Apparently your backstory now is that you’re a pirate. It doesn’t impact anything, but I guess they wanted to explain the bandana? Hey, that was your fashion choice, don’t blame me. Besides, it’s not like anyone is going to remember some dumb biography from an instruction manual in twenty years. They’re going to remember Grant! The man that stabbed Dracula right in the face! I’ll call Konami right now and tell ‘em Grant Danusty is down! … Oh, sorry, I think I have a cold or something.”

“Grant, hey, I know it’s been… really? Seven years? Wow, where does the time go? Look, calling because I got you another gig in Castlevania! I know, right? They never reuse protagonists, but here we are! Grant is back, baby!

“… Well, okay, I’ve spoken to Castlevania’s new director, Iga or something, and… Well, okay, remember Alucard? I guess he made an impact on somebody, and now he’s getting his own game. … No, I’m sorry, the whole thing is supposed to take place like hundreds of years after Castlevania 3, so… Well, I guess in the story, you’re kind of… uh… dead. But don’t worry! I looked at your contract, and if Alucard appears in a game within a decade of CS3, then you have to, too! So I got you in!

Take that!“… Well, yeah, you’re not the hero. You can’t always be the star, Grant. It’s more of a cameo, really, but a gig is a gig, right? And your buddies Ralph… sorry, Trevor and Sypha will be there. It’s just a boss fight… Yes, you’re a boss monster again… Yeah, apparently you’re a zombie version of yourself… Yeah, look, just take the gig, man. Grant gets to be 32-bits, your fans get to see you all over again, and it’s going to be great. You don’t see Christopher Belmont getting these calls, do you? It’s a paycheck, buddy, just have some fun with your friends, don’t think too hard about it. At least you’ll get your daggers back!”

“Grant, my nasty boy, where have you been? Eleven years just flies by, right? Well, look, I’m calling you with some amazing news. They’re making a Castlevania fighting game, and it’s only going to include fourteen legends from across the whole franchise. And one of those legends? You guessed it, the one and only Grant Danasty. … Nope! You’re not a boss or a monster or anything. It’s just you, Grant, and you’re a playable character all over again! And your old buds are in the game, too, so if you want to see Alucard all… You’re not talking… Oh, Grant, come on, I know a sword to the face hurts, but you were supposed to be an evil zombie. You have to let it go.

“Although… uh… Speaking of things you’re going to have to let go, they decided to… expand your backstory a little bit for this one. No, you don’t have to worry about that pirate thing again, I don’t know why you keep bringing that up… No, apparently there is, like, time travel in this one, and the ‘you’ that is fighting is a Grant from after Castlevania 3, and after Trevor and Sypha get married. And… uh… If I’m reading this right, your whole deal is that you’re jealous that Trevor and Sypha are together, so you skipped their wedding and… What? Well, okay, yeah, I guess it kind of makes you sound like a ‘douchebag’, but you don’t need to use that kind of language. You fell for a girl while you went on an adventure, and that makes you relatable. What? No, it really doesn’t matter that you only ever shared a single screen back in the day, it’s what’s called a retcon. You had a thing for Sypha, she went for Trevor, and you’re fighting to impress her. Easy-peasy. You don’t have to change a bit.

“Oh… wait, there is one thing. I just got a fax of… Woof… Okay, apparently your costume is going to look like… uh…

Classy kind of guy

“No, you’re not a mummy monster. Why do you keep thinking someone is trying to make you a monster? It’s just… a stylistic choice. Happens all the time! You should see what they’ve got this Maria kid wearing. Trust me, you’re going to make out great with this Judgment thing! These fighting games always take off, and you’re on the ground floor! There’s going to be, like, medusa head DLC in three years, and you’re going to be part of the original crop. You are Castlevania all over again, Grant!”

“Grant. Grant, I know you’re listening. You have to stop calling me. It’s been almost ten years since that Judgment disaster. Konami… or what passes for Konami nowadays… They’re done with you, okay? It sucks, but it happens. And this new thing? The Netflix series? They’re not interested. Your “team” contract ran out a long time ago, and the writers here? They don’t care. I don’t know if it’s the whole pirate thing, or how there is already enough of the aristocracy versus the peasants thing going on, or maybe it’s just that “surly Trevor” subsumed your personality… but, Grant? You listening to me? You have to let it go. This is a new Castlevania, and it’s not for you.

Winner“Look, Grant are you?… Grant? Grant, you’re a good guy. Remember the good times! You were the top of the heap in Castlevania 3. You were right there at the beginning, you could kill a skeleton from a hundred meters, and you didn’t need a single heart to scuttle all over the world and make every level your playground. Things may have gone downhill from there, but you were top of the heap at the start, and people will remember that. Hey, I hear there’s a whole Classic Castlevania Collection being released, and it’s got the American and Japanese versions. Think about it, man, everybody is going to see your glory days all over again, no stupid Netflix show required. Netflix shmetflix, you’re the big man from Castlevania, Grant, and they’re crazy for not seeing it.

“Grant? You alright? … Yeah, okay, I’ll come over. Break open a wall, we’re gonna have a meat feast tonight. A toast to Grant Danusty, buddy!

“… What?”

FGC #479 Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse

  • System: Nintendo Entertainment System is your classic go-to, but it has recently resurfaced on Wii, WiiU, 3DS, and Switch/PS4 for compilations. Yes, I am pretty sure I purchased this game on every one of those systems.
  • Number of players: One vampire slayer at a time, please.
  • Favorite Slayer: Alucard. What? I like dhampirs.
  • Favorite Route: Whatever allows me to skip that falling block area. Considering I also want to pick up Alucard, that usually means swinging through his crypt, and then moving on to Castlevania’s inexplicable Fake Atlantis. Sorry I had to drown an entire city on the way to Dracula, guys, but that’s what you get for employing a loadbearing dragon.
  • Lookin' GoodFrom the peanut gallery: My better half objected to every time I switched characters, and commented “don’t make that horrible sound again.”
  • Goggle Bob Fact: My grandparents mailed me this game as a Christmas gift back when I was a wee Goggle Bob. Some part of me would have wanted to have my vacationing grandparents home for the holidays… but another part of me was very content to hunt vampires all day and night for weeks. Childhood: it’s a tradeoff.
  • So, did you beat it? I want to say this is a game I played 10,000 times as a kid, but never actually conquered until the innovation of save states. This is saddening, but have you ever actually fought Dracula III’s final form? It is a death-spewing monster the likes of which the franchise has rarely seen (and the hellish pits don’t help).
  • Did you know? The Grant Doppelgänger still uses constant throwing daggers, while Grant is left with his piddly stabbing stick in the American version. The computer cheats!
  • Would I play again: This is easily one of, if not my most, favorite Castlevania titles. I drift back to Castlevania 3 about once annually, and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Three Dirty Dwarves for the Sega Saturn! That’s three more dirty dwarves than we normally get! Please look forward to it!

Buds!

FGC #476 Final Fantasy 9

Fantasy Time!Final Fantasy 9 doesn’t get enough respect for being the top of its very specific, very forgotten class.

It’s easy to see why someone would have issues with Final Fantasy 9 at its initial release. For starters, it was a JRPG right there at the end of the Playstation 1 JRPG boom. This meant it had a healthy amount of competition from all angles (including an in-house rivalry with Square’s own Chrono Cross). And, honestly, a “throwback” JRPG in that environment was the worst possible idea. Yes, the Final Fantasy franchise had drifted very far from the medieval fantasy origins of Final Fantasy (give or take a floating techno city), but that didn’t mean the rest of the genre had moved on with it. Medieval fantasy JRPGs were a dime a dozen in 2000, and practically everything in Final Fantasy 9 had been done by other JRPGs of the eon. Fantasy world with a whole bunch of depressed furries? We’ve already got Breath of Fire. Your Princess suicidally depressed into a haircut thanks to being responsible for the destruction of her kingdom? Straight out of the Wild Arms playbook. Hell, even some seemingly unique flourishes are improbably specifically from other titles of the epoch: the malevolent monster fog that initially rescinds and then blankets the world in a time of crisis is the entire premise of Legend of Legaia. In short, there’s a thin line between “retro” and “derivative”, and then it’s an even shorter hop to “outright theft”. And it probably didn’t help that Final Fantasy 9’s hero is a thief…

And, come to think of it, that thief was a problem, too. Every protagonist, from Beatrix to Zidane, is deliberately evocative of other heroes in the Final Fantasy franchise. Vivi might go through an interesting journey from “9 year old” to “inspiration for an entire society”, but a quick glance reminds you he’s still just a generic Final Fantasy Black Mage. Freya is a dragoon obsessed with her potential lover, and Dagger is a princess with global responsibility issues. And Eiko? Look, I’m sorry, but Rydia called, and she wants her everything back. And it’s kind of hard to not be cynical when you’ve seen these characters before and liked their games better. With very little exaggeration, by the time some people played Final Fantasy 9, they had already played Final Fantasy 6 for approximately 500 hours. BORKYou want your protagonist to fill the shoes of Locke Cole, you damn well better be sure he’s going to bring something new to the table. Oh? At one point in one dungeon he gets sad about being a monkey? But then he instantly recovers? Wow, Final Fantasy 9, you phoned it in so hard, Steiner just learned the rotary-dial ability.

But now it’s twenty years later. Time has passed, and, for better or worse, the world is very different. Now JRPGs are only medieval when they’re also showcasing anime high school students. Now Final Fantasy is a brand that includes more spin-offs and “experiments” than it does actual numbered entries (and those numbered entries get their own, specific spin-offs, too!). The idea that any one game could capture the zeitgeist of the franchise and its most prominent age is no more possible than you could now produce a film that somehow featured every movie star back to the dawn of Hollywood. The Final Fantasy franchise is now so much more than “there used to be crystals, right?”, so Final Fantasy 9 being some kind of deliberate nostalgic journey seems… quaint.

… And it’s not like anyone is going to compare FF9 to Legend of Legaia anymore. Nobody remembers Legend of Legaia.

So now, divorced from the expectations of the bygone year of 2000, it’s easy to play Final Fantasy 9 and see that the real innovations could never be found by watching this…

Weeeeee

But by playing through this…

What's the haps?

In case you’re unfamiliar with the intricacies of Final Fantasy 9’s plot and its various scenarios, let me explain what you’re seeing there. Ultimately, this is not a complicated scene: it’s Darth Vader telling Luke he’s his daddy. Zidane has just discovered his home planet, and Garland here is explaining how he created Zidane to destroy the (or at least one) world, and souls have to migrate through a magical tree, and Zidane’s brother is another destroyer-monkey that apparently exists with an expiration date, and… Actually, come to think of it? Maybe this scene is a little complicated. This happens a lot in JRPGs: the crux of the plot involves a lot of metaphysical and metaphorical ideas, and there’s really no way to get that information to the player without evoking some kind of massive info dump. In this case, Final Fantasy 9 has wholly invented its own version of the afterlife/reincarnation, and, in order to simultaneously explain the details of that system and how the villains are gumming up the works, you basically need an introductory course on Final Fantasy 9’s religion. Christians don’t know how easy they have it when they can just toss off a line like, “I’ll send you to Hell!” without having to follow it with, “Which is a location where the greatest sinners are eternally tortured by Satan, a demon that once fell from Grace when…”

BORKBut what is being explained isn’t important (sorry about the previous paragraph, I’ll try not to waste your time with asides in the future… wait! Dammit!), what’s important to the entire genre is how it’s being explained. Garland is not confined to a mere text box, nor is Garland a giant cut-out that encompasses half the screen. Garland is hovering across a magical mushroom patch (or… something) and explaining the why of Final Fantasy 9 while “escaping” Zidane. This is inevitably leading to a showdown of some sort, and requires the player to actively “play” while listening to Garland. Want to know more? Of course you do! Follow the floating evil dude. You’re actively playing a videogame, after all, and a role-playing game at that. You think Zidane wants to know more? Of course he does! You’re playing as Zidane! Your goals are one in the same. Now go on, scoot, follow that bearded knight and get the whole story. After all, if you’re Zidane, you’re part of the story.

And that’s something we never saw again.

The very next Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy 10 (yes, I know stating sequential numbers sounds obvious, but please remember that the next FF after that was Final Fantasy 10-2), relied on voice acting and dedicated cinema scenes for its plot advancement, thus making the franchise “like a movie”. And that’s great for anyone that uses their PS2 to play DVDs, but maybe not the best for the person picking up a controller to actually play a game. Regardless, we were all very excited about Final Fantasy 10, its movies, and other similar games like Metal Gear Solid 2 or Xenosaga. Game-movies are the future! It’s like the moving pictures! Videogames can finally be as respectable as Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2! Games are art! … Except we weren’t lauding the “game” part of our videogames, we were just excited about the occasional moments when a videogame could feature a mini-movie… and whether or not any sort of player participation was involved was completely moot. Grab some popcorn! It’s time to play a videogame!

PLORPBut I’m not telling you, dear audience, anything you don’t already know. We remember the bygone Playstation 2 years, and we remember the gradual drift from “movie games” back to “games you actually play”. Yes, we still deal with the latest games touting sparkling stars performing minor voice acting, or “deeply cinematic visuals”, but, by and large we’ve gotten away from action games just sitting back and letting Norman Reedus deliver a soliloquy about baby carrying… Except for in the genre that started this whole mess. JRPGs are still considered plot-delivery devices, and, whether you’re playing a game featuring a lady trying to organize her armies against a dragon goddess, or some title where everyone inexplicably wants to %&*# the dragons in a wildly different way, you still wind up with “sit here and watch” cinema scenes for everything from tea parties to castle storming. Somewhere along the line, it was determined that JRPGs are closer to visual novels than any other genre, and would you care to sit down and have some exposition today? It might be explaining a planet’s apocalyptic backstory, or it could simply be the recounting of a supporting player’s daddy issues, but it still means you’re just sitting there smacking X to advance.

And what’s worse? In the absence of the seemingly unlimited budget of pre-Spirits Within Square, everything has flattened out to this…

So brave

And it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a “retro-throwback”, or a JRPG so popular that it apparently earned its spot in Smash Bros history…

What a bunch of jokers

The directors of Final Fantasy 9 knew exactly what they were doing. Final Fantasy 9 is a game that never loses sight of being a videogame, and uses every “trick” that surfaced in the thirteen years that had passed since Final Fantasy. From multiple character animations, to dynamically moving villains, to even something as simple as “interrupting” text boxes, Final Fantasy 9 does everything it can to keep the player engaged in every conceivable way. After all, why would you bother with another goofy sidequest or “Active Time Event” if each wasn’t vibrant and remarkable?

Final Fantasy 9 truly was the end point of all JRPGs that came before. It’s just a shame it was also the end of the dynamic JRPG.

FGC #476 Final Fantasy 9

  • System: Playstation 1 in its first go, but it’s made it to the Playstation 3, Vita, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Switch in the intervening years. May I recommend any version that involves a fast forward button?
  • Number of players: Oddly enough, Final Fantasy 9 has the ability to assign combat controls to either controller port, so you can technically co-op play FF9. Yay! I called Vivi!
  • Remake Reproblems: I very much appreciate everything that is involved in the HD remake of Final Fantasy 9. Fast forwarding is amazing for a game that has always had absurdly slow combat. Automatically maxing your levels and abilities for when you don’t feel like grinding from square one is something I have wanted forever. And the graphical touchups add a new volume to a game that a lot of us originally played on ancient televisions that could barely handle three colors. But, man oh man, someone didn’t put nearly enough time into making sure the new HD sprites match the “HD” cinematics. Some of the most dramatic scenes in this game now appear to be animated by the folks behind Monty Python, and it’s not the best look.
  • HUNGRY!Cool Car: Your final airship is the Invincible, a destructive “monster ship” from Zidane’s home planet (and another Final Fantasy reference). It is also the ship that obliterated Princess Dagger’s home on two separate occasions. Dagger lampshades the situation if you chat with her aboard your new ride, but it’s still more than a little weird that the first princess of PTSD is totally cool with riding around on her own personal atomic bomb.
  • Favorite Dungeon: Gizamaluke’s Grotto is the best name for a dungeon ever, and I will hear no objections to this apparent fact. The fact that it contains multiple exits and a moogle wedding is just gravy.
  • What’s in a name: Pumice is the stone that eventually allows you to summon the combat airship, Ark. However, in the original Japanese, Pumice is known as the “Floating Stone”. That makes a lot more sense for this franchise.
  • What’s in a name Part 2: One of Kuja’s pet dragons, Nova Dragon, was originally named Shinryu, ala the chief reptilian super boss of the series. Given Nova Dragon provides such a lackluster fight, It’s probably for the best that this one got changed…
  • So, did you beat it: I got everything on the original hardware, including the Strategy Guide that is a reward for murdering the super boss. And I did that all without a real strategy guide, because the official strategy guide for Final Fantasy 9 is the worst thing to ever happen to the medium.
  • But you still own it, right? I got the collector’s edition!
    I hate this thing

    Visit Playonline for more information on how my life is a lie!
  • Did you know? There are nine knights of Pluto! And Pluto is the ninth planet in our solar system. Or… at least it used to be…
  • Would I play again: This… is not my favorite Final Fantasy title. I love exactly what it did, but the speed of everything kills me, and my knowledge of all those sidequests I’m ignoring if I ever want to finish the game again within my lifetime is terrible for my conscience. Final Fantasy 9, you’re an amazing game, but I just can’t deal with you right now.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Stretch Panic for the Playstation 2! …. God dammit. Please look forward to it, if you must.

WARK

FGC #468 Shovel Knight

For shovelry!Just the other day, my father walked into my kitchen, and, because I had carelessly left a fresh delivery on my kitchen counter, my dad asked what exactly he was looking at.

“What’s Shovel Knight from?”
“He’s Shovel Knight. From… Shovel Knight.”
“Oh. So is that a movie? Comic book? Comic book movie?”
“Nope, it’s a videogame.”
“Oh. Does he… uh… dig?”

Yes dad, Shovel Knight does dig. And he bounces and battles dragons and saves the love of his life and brings hope to all the people of his homey little hamlet. And he’s been around for six years, and he’s rocketed from nonexistence to possibly the most adaptable character in the last few years of gaming. And, yes, he’s a little golden amiibo that is sitting on my kitchen counter.

And considering that all happened thanks to fan support, focused marketing, and damn good gameplay, it’s hard to believe Shovel Knight’s giant blue helmet isn’t the face of gaming of the last decade.

Now, it’s an easy thing to imagine Shovel Knight sprang into existence in the Spring of 2013 when the official Shovel Knight Kickstarter kicked into high gear. Or, perhaps, you would like to attribute his creation to when Nick Wozniak and his team first pioneered the concept over a lunch “that got too serious”. But to truly understand the origins of Shovel Knight, you have to go back to the late 90’s or so. Back at the turn of the 21st Century, 2-D platforming rapidly went from “is videogames” to “oh God everything that is 2-D is trash, strike it from thine sight”. For reasons that are still mysterious to even our most learned historians (though there is a hypothesis that Gamepro may have been involved), this kind of thinking persisted through many years, causing many a beloved franchise to embrace 3-D or die. Mario 64 was a revelation, Mega Man X7… less so. But the belief that a game could not be 2-D seemed to Shinyhold fast for a decade, and the only place you could find such an experience would be in the Gameboy ghetto of game development. It’s telling that one of the most popular games of 1997 had to retreat to the portable space, while its 3-D rival of the year managed to dominate the console industry for years to come. The message to game producers was clear: you weren’t going to get anywhere with 2-D. And doubly so if you were dropping cutting edge graphics for a “retro” experience. That kind of nonsense best be relegated to some manner of easter egg. No one would every buy a retro platformer.

So it makes perfect sense that Shovel Knight’s initial fundraising goal of $75,000 was quickly surpassed, and Yacht Club collected over four times as much funding ($311,502) in less than a month’s time. Shovel Knight’s audience was starved for Shovel Knight-esque content, and, while the yolk of 3-D oppression had been shaken in the years leading to 2013, it was still a time when the prospect of something “like old Capcom games” was going to appeal to a very dedicated subset of nerds. This meant that the whole of Shovel Knight’s “bonus” content was funded before ol’ SK officially touched his first trowel, so a game crammed with amazing content was forthcoming. 14,749 people were ready for some amazing retro action that would be shared with WiiU, 3DS and PC players shortly.

And, from a gameplay perspective, Shovel Knight did not disappoint. Shovel Knight is an excellent platformer that borrows liberally from the entire NES library, but combines all those pieces to be its own exceptional Voltron. Shovel Knight’s downward stab was apparently inspired by Link, but his greatest hopping challenges seem to evoke Ducktales more than anything. And the “arc” of the quest is much more akin to Mega Man, what with clearly defined “gimmick” bosses (Propeller Knight and Gyro Man were separated at birth) and stages that rely wonderfully on their masters’ theming. And maybe that world map is supposed to suggest Super Mario Bros. 3. Or those upgrades are supposed to remind us of Samus Aran’s evolving arsenal. And there were a few items that inched closer to modern sensibilities, like the collectables that advanced replay value (often hidden in accompanying “challenge” areas), or the death system that was a lot closer to Dark Souls than Darkwing Duck. But wherever the inspirations originated, Shovel Knight combined all of its pieces to be an extraordinary experience. Join the clubAnd it didn’t hurt to see a cast of memorable characters fighting through an unforgettable tale of loss and tragedy (and eventual triumph). Wrap this all up with a host of modern “achievements”, and Shovel Knight was one of the finest games of 2014.

But it wasn’t anywhere near done.

Shovel Knight was everything anyone could want from a retro platformer, but it wasn’t the complete game that had been funded a year earlier. All of those bonus bells and whistles would gradually dribble out over the following months and years. Things like Gender/Body Swap mode was little more than a (staggering and inclusive) skin for our heroes and villains, but Plague of Shadows was practically an entirely different game labeled as merely an “expansion”. The adventure, now featuring the morally gray Plague Knight, was a whole new way to play through familiar levels, and featured an added “town area” and a few other extras (peculiarly powered by washing machines) to boot. This was released alongside a number of quick challenges for Shovel Knight, and, coupled with some new console exclusives (and, uh, additional console releases, too) like challenges from Kratos and The Battletoads, it was clear that Shovel Knight’s additional content wasn’t going to be some hastily manufactured DLC.

And let me tell you, about a year and a half later, just in time for the release of the Switch, Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment proved Shovel Knight “DLC” was going to be a lot more than a meager expansion.

Spin it!Plague of Shadows was an all-new story with an all-new character (well, all-new for control purposes), but it still saw its hero (“hero”) venture through (most of) the same levels as Shovel Knight. The new play style radically altered your options for traversal, but it was still just a game starring Luigi instead of Mario (well, Super Mario Bros. 2 Luigi, at least). Specter of Torment reused those same levels, but modified them to the point they are barely recognizable. And that’s a good thing! Specter Knight possessed his own moveset, and, rather than mere rehashes, all of his stages were modified to be challenging for that specific moveset. This made Specter of Torment a complete sequel to Shovel Knight! Well… that might be a bit of an exaggeration. Maybe it’s more akin to a romhack? Or, like the NES games Shovel Knight so adores, it’s an “old school” sequel. Almost all the same assets, but rearranged so completely as to be practically unrecognizable. A shining example of the proper way to recycle pixels.

And, oh yeah, Specter Knight is a blast to play as. He’s the Zero to Shovel Knight’s Mega Man (or… uh… Scrooge McDuck?), and really feels like he belongs in an entirely different game. Which is appropriate, as his “entirely different game” seems to only reuse the general aesthetics of its prequel/sequel. The world of Specter Knight goes to some very unexpected places (like the origins of Shovel Knight’s best gal pal), and eschews some gameplay conventions (like the world map) while picking up all new challenges (like an endless tower of pain)(and grinding! Like Sonic!). It’s still unmistakably Shovel Knight, but it’s a whole new experience through and through.

SPIN FOR YOUR LIFEAnd then, in 2019, they did the same thing again with King Knight and Shovel Knight: King of Cards. Give or take one extremely subjective card game (I hate all card games [even that one], but my understanding is that some weirdos can enjoy such a thing), King Knight’s adventure is another slam dunk. The general tone (and lighting) seems closer to its OG Shovel Knight origins, but Kingy’s quest to be king of at least something features dramatically shorter levels and more bite-sized challenges than any of the other campaigns. And that’s a refreshing change of pace that additionally gives some of the gimmicks of the previous tetralogy some room to breathe. Green goo and a bouncy-butted beetle finally get a showcase in their own, complete level! Considering the number one complaint anyone ever leveled against Shovel Knight was that its stages were too long (which, seriously, you gonna complain about there being too much game to play? Philistines), King Knight’s King of Cards is a sequel to Shovel Knight that listened to its greatest detractors. Yacht Club learned something!

And then, to top it all off, Shovel Knight dropped its own version of Smash Bros. You can control every knight! And make ‘em fight! And most of the significant NPCs are PCs now, too. So, finally, you can see who would hold ultimate victory in a battle between Mona, Baz, Mole Knight, and those purple goo monsters from the final tower. And, for being an 8-bit redux inspired by a game that originally appeared on 64-bit hardware, it’s pretty damn impressive. It can get a little confusing when you’re trying to find your sprite against similar colored backgrounds (or against similar-colored enemies), but the designs of the Shovel Knight cast compensate for a lot, so you can usually tell the difference between a Shovel Knight and a Black Knight. And if you can’t? Well, just go ahead and have fun with it. This is an 8-bit platformer fighting game, after all. It’s supposed to be about as chaotic as a bucket full of enemy crabs.

Get up thereSo that’s 3.5 games, right? We’ve got Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope and Plague of Shadows as two pretty similar experiences, but Specter of Torment, King of Cards, and Shovel Knight Showdown are all as different as Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3. Showdown is practically an entirely different genre. I’m going to call that a total of 3.5 games that all fall under the Shovel Knight umbrella.

And it all came from one Kickstarter.

And if you bought the initial Shovel Knight at launch, the whole package cost a measly twenty bucks. You’re actually rewarded for being an early adopter.

Shovel Knight is a game that seemed to last a decade with its various expansions, but, more than that, it is a shining example of what was possible for a few brief years in the 2010s. Kickstarter was an extremely popular platform earlier in the decade, and, while it produced many excellent games and projects, it is primarily recounted now by any number of fans who wound up burned by creators who had the collective managerial skills of a hamster (and not that hamster with the hardhat). Kickstarter and alike is now seen more as a generally reliable healthcare plan than a platform that might create the next game you’ll play for five years. But in the last decade, it was responsible for Shovel Knight. And the triumph of Shovel Knight paved the way for oodles of retro platformer titles. Was every retro game good? No, of course not. But they never would have seen the light of day without Shovel Knight blazing a trail. And, while this trend is likely coming to its close, the current digital marketplace does speak to Shovel Knight’s success.

And, as appropriate for a knight that came from the crowds, he has now returned to the crowds as the most cameoed newcomer of the decade:

Smash it Good!
Slash it Good!
Bonk it good

Not bad for a dude that didn’t exist when the decade started.

Shovel Knight is the 2010s distilled down to its purest, more hopeful form. It is an experience that could only come from one time in gaming’s history. And it’s a damn fine game to boot.

2010: The decade of Shovelry.

FGC #468 Shovel Knight

  • System: Whaddya got? Nintendo 3DS, WiiU, and PC to start, but eventually shovelry spread to the Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and the Amazon Fire TV (for some reason).
  • Look away!Number of Players: 2-Players was eventually patched in (with or without amiibo), and Shovel Knight Showdown is 4 players simultaneous. But most people think about the single player campaign, because Shovel Knight appeals to lonely, insomniac nerds.
  • Just play the gig, man: Did I mention the music was amazing? Because it is. Jake Kaufman seems to be responsible for the majority of amazing American soundtracks for the decade, and the addition of one of Mega Man’s composers is just the perfect addition. The fact that every song gets a little in-game director’s commentary is pretty boss, too.
  • Favorite System: Shovel Knight appeared across multiple platforms, but the 3DS version still might be the best. It has 3-D and the ability to quickly switch between items (or whatever they’re called in the version du jour). Battletoads are no substitute for being able to avoid a pause menu.
  • Lucasian Problems: Kudos to Shovel Knight’s team for not returning to Shovel of Hope with every update to “backdate” changes from later expansions. It would be the easiest thing in the world to sneak in “remake” NPCs that allude to what happens in other knights’ adventures (or, hell, advertise those experiences), but Shovel of Hope remains unmolested and devoid of unnecessary changes. Thank you for the restraint.
  • Favorite Character: Percy the Horse Scholar. I will not be accepting questions at this time.
  • Go Toads!Amiibo Corner: Naturally, I preordered the Order of No Quarter amiibos when they were first announced. That was in the fall of 2017. They were released in December of 2019. That might be the longest preorder for a videogame-related item I’ve ever maintained. Good thing I still care about collecting every damn amiibo in existence!
  • Say something mean: Propeller Knight’s stage is the worst in every version/adventure. This isn’t because of the frequent bottomless pits (though, admittedly, that do not help); it’s the auto scrolling areas, and spots that may as well be auto scrolling because you need to wait for a cannonball or wind gust. I hate waiting! I want to run! Don’t hold me down, Propeller Knight!
  • Did you know? Shovel Knight is almost a NES game… though it does include three additional audio channels and four extra colors not available to original Nintendo Entertainment System hardware. There are some other “tweaks” here and there, too, but what’s important is that the screen shakes during explosions unmistakably like in an old school game.
  • Would I play again: Absolutely. This is the cream of the crop for 2-D platformers, and I love me some 2-D platformers. Long may his shovel reign!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Pokémon Sword for the Nintendo Switch! … Yeah… that was a totally random choice, and not the result of me putting a hundred hours into the thing over the last few months… Yeeeep! Gonna be a totally randomly chosen modern game next week! Please look forward to it!

Shake it