Tag Archives: playstation

FGC #508 Chocobo Racing

Chocobo Racing is a time capsule buried by a company just before its own apocalypse.

Chocobo Racing was released by Square Co Ltd in in 1999. That’s Square, to be clear, not Square-Enix. This was before Square made its movie-based disastrous decisions and was gobbled up by its greatest competitor. In 1999, Square was riding high on practically defining a console generation with the likes of Final Fantasy 7 and whatever game came after Final Fantasy 7 (Tactics?). However, despite the tail end of the 20th Century being the glory days of Square, it rarely delved into full-on company cross overs. There might be a cameo here or there, but, by and large, Fei’s Gear wasn’t ever going to battle the blade of Mikado. Even the banner Final Fantasy franchise rarely allowed for a random encounter between Terra and Bartz. But a “silly” kart racing game? Hey, that might be a fine opportunity for the greatest stars in Square’s stable to strut their stuff. And who was chosen for Chocobo Racing? Well, let’s take a look.

The main birdChocobo is the gimme of this group. It’s Chocobo Racing! He’s the star of his own spin-off series! He’s arguably the most frequently recurring piece of Final Fantasy lore that isn’t a sword. He’s also rather well-suited to the whole racing thing, as “chocobo racing” has been an activity in more serious Final Fantasy titles that feature the occasional toyasaurus. The Chocobo that stars in Chocobo Racing is supposed to be a lovable dork that coincidentally winds up making the world a better place, so he’s an excellent bird to take center stage for this adventure/grand prix.

Mog!Similarly, we’ve got Mog the Moogle in the Mog-Mobile. Moogles have been a part of Final Fantasy since Final Fantasy 3, but they really got some focus in Final Fantasy 3… er… 6, when Mog the Moogle joined the party. And, because that Mog was a fast-talking, street-smart, SLAM-dancing moogle, the template for future moogles seemed to be solidified as cynical companions for naïve yellow birds. And that’s great! Everyone needs a sarcastic sidekick, and we’re all allowed to imagine this is the Mog that fought Kefka reborn in a universe where he only has to worry about Cid building an appropriately fine-ass scooter for his magical-ass deely bopper. Mog is fun, moogles are fun in the Final Fantasy franchise, this is all very fun for everybody.

SpookyAnd while we’re looking at icons for the Final Fantasy series, we’ve got Black Mage and White Mage. Chocobo Racing was released a little over a year before Final Fantasy 9, so this was just the cusp of the Black Mage Revolution that saw Vivi catapult his race to stardom. Unfortunately, this left White Mages puttering behind and barely attaining cameo status. It’s sad! White Mages and Black Mages used to be two sides of the same coin, the Tao of Final Fantasy, but then Vivi made one of those races about 1,000% more iconic, and that’s all she wrote. Or, one may suppose, he wrote, as this is another clear case of the boys becoming more iconic than the girls. Whatever the case, White Mages are still occasionally featured by Square Enix, but Black Mages are part of the Final Fantasy logo. It’s nice to remember a time when they were still equal, and the only race that mattered was chocobo racing.

Tanks a lotThe only other “story” human (or human-shaped entity) in Chocobo Racing is Cid. In this case, we’ve got a Cid that is completely unique to the Chocobo Racing Universe (it’s a thing!), and that’s just how Final Fantasy rolled back in the day. We didn’t see a repeat Cid until, what, Kingdom Hearts? And that Cid was playing second fiddle to a pair of chipmunks. A new Cid for every occasion was once a staple of the Final Fantasy Expanded Universe, and that had been a tradition going back to the birth of the chocobo. Cids are Final Fantasy! He is a helpful NPC that is unlockable if you decide to toss the dude a tank. This is the way it should be!

Go draggyBut wait! There is a Final Fantasy tradition older than Cid and chocobos! Bahamut is the big… uh… something of the game. He’s not a bad guy. But he’s… kind of an antagonist? He apparently broke up big bad magic because he didn’t think sentient life could deal with such an intimidating doomsday spell, but now he’s seen the error of his ways, because all anyone can do in his world now is race around on go karts. It’s a feel good story? Maybe? Look, what’s important is that Bahamut appears, he’s technically the Exdeath or Zeromous of the plot, but, since Chocobo lives in a gentle world, Bahamut’s surprise third act appearance primarily involves admitting he was wrong to be a misanthrope (or whatever mis-word is appropriate for a world that involves a fair number of sentient racers with wings). Bahamut is usually the arbiter of truth or at least a space-laser flinging dragon in Final Fantasy, and he appears often in the franchise (sometimes multiple ways per game), so this is a good role for the little (not little) dragon. He’s another Final Fantasy “cameo” that is Final Fantasy.

That dragon brings us to the bestiary reps. Can we admit that Final Fantasy didn’t really have an iconic collection of monsters until… Maybe Final Fantasy 5 or so? Case in point: Goblin. The Goblin of Chocobo Racing is meant to be a good Goblin thief that is basically Robin Hood/Locke Cole, but his general presence is a representation of Final Fantasy’s first random encounter. The Goblin (or Imp, if you’re stuck in OG USA Final Fantasy) is the first monster ever seen in Final Fantasy, and has appeared in many forms (and color swaps) across the franchise. They’re pretty straightforward low-level mooks, and their design (give or take that time they had wheels) is simple and screams “threatening, but you can take ‘em”. But are goblins an iconic part of Final Fantasy? Nope. Despite appearing as an early threat in so many classic Final Fantasy games, they never attained the popularity of Enix’s amazing level one encounter: the slime. Are Goblins too complicated? Not blue enough? Who knows why, but the humble Goblin is an extremely lackluster monster to represent Final Fantasy.

CRUSHAnd, while we’re at it, look at Golem. Here’s another one that has appeared in practically every Final Fantasy title, but is he ever remembered? There was one Golem that was kind of a jerk, kind of an ally in Final Fantasy 5, but when he came back around in Final Fantasy 6, he was an Esper that was little more than an auction house trinket. Other than that, he’s an opponent that is always just kind of there, but does little to make an impact in any way other than a few stone punches. This is, once again, a spot where Enix wins, and you wonder why rival Square would even attempt to evoke the occasionally sleeping giant that guarded a certain town in the original Dragon Quest.

GrowlAt this point, it might be easy to assume Square had zero iconic monsters in 1999. Not true! There was at least Behemoth, the big, bad purple horse-cow-bull thing. Maybe it’s an overgrown cat? Whatever. What’s important is that Behemoth was supposed to be in Final Fantasy 1 (he’s there in some promotional art), finally arrived for Final Fantasy 2 (gee, seems like a lot of Final Fantasy was established with the one game everybody hates), and then stuck around to be a memorable battle in nearly every Final Fantasy thereafter. And that’s the thing! Goblins ‘n Golems are forgettable because they barely ever even have a special move to toss at the party. The behemoth, though? Now there’s a fight you always remember. Whether you’re trying to unseal untold magics or rescue a ninja/painter from an undead monstrosity, behemoths leave an impression. It’s not about iconic design or overly inflated anime eyes, it’s about facing a brick wall of monster meat that is ready to murder your party at a moment’s notice. And later versions of behemoths in Final Fantasy gained friggin’ chainsaw swords, so this beast has staying power beyond any silly old rock piles.

DO NOT TOUCHBut for a fine time capsule of 1999 Square monsters, please look at the fact that one monster is a hidden character, and it’s Cactuar. Final Fantasy really did grow out of the old Dungeons & Dragons mold, and, likely thanks to its source material already being fairly worn in the early 80’s (possibly the early 1680’s), most of its monsters would be equally at home in Day Dreamin’ Davey. Around Final Fantasy 4 or so, though, the bestiary started growing more unique. By Final Fantasy 5, we had the tonberry. In Final Fantasy 6, we saw the cactuar. Soon these monsters would dominate Final Fantasy discourse (and maybe a few summons), and become creatures so iconic, they cameoed in Square’s most treasured Playstation 2 release, The Bouncer. But back in 1999, what was truly unique about Final Fantasy monsters was still in its infancy, so only Cactuar is represented, and only as a hidden “Easter Egg” that is not part of the main story. Such a thing would never happen in Chocobo Racing 2020 (coming never).

WhateverBut this was 1999, so we needed to feature the latest Final Fantasy luminaries. First up? Squall Leonhart, star of the recently released Final Fantasy 8. Final Fantasy 8 is featured more than any other single game in Chocobo Racing, as it gets not only a racer, but also a gunblade powerup and an entire track based on Deiling City (a location in FF8 that, unfortunately, does not at any point reveal itself to be a secret airship). This is clearly a case of Square trying to claim their latest Final Fantasy offering was as popular and iconic as the Final Fantasy that had been released in 1997, but it seems that Square wouldn’t learn that lesson until… what year did Final Fantasy 7 Remake come out? This one? Dang. That lesson took a while (and Dirges don’t count). People just want to see Cloud and his whaddyacallit sword, not this dork with a lion fetish! Stop trying to make Squall a thing, Square! His jacket is too fuzzy!

And double-plus-extra don’t try making Moombas a thing. They’re not moogles! Everybody would rather be playing as Red XIII anyway.

Let's moseySpeaking of, Cloud Strife is here. He’s got his signature motorcycle, but it’s not yet his motorcycle made out of swords. And, while it’s always nice to see the star of Final Fantasy Tactics and Ehrgeiz, Cloud doesn’t really bring anything additionally to the table. There’s no Midgar track, no Buster Sword powerup, or even so much as a FF7-style materia to be found. He’s just Cloud, and he feels more like a cute afterthought than a legitimate addition to the cast. 1999 was apparently a year Square was ready to acknowledge Final Fantasy 7, but was willing to move on. Vincent Valentine weeps.

NO COPSBut if you really want to cry, take a look at Aya Brea, star of Parasite Eve and Square’s only female cameo (and, assuming the creatures to be fairly androgynous, the only other woman on the roster apart from White Mage). This cameo is mostly… Well…You have to use your imagination. Squall and Cloud both have super-deformed, Chocobo World-appropriate versions of their traditionally serious, polygonal selves. Aya, meanwhile, gets a police car… and that’s it. She’s presumably in the police car, but if it was revealed Edie E. was the real driver in there, nobody would be surprised. So it’s nice that Parasite Eve got to cameo like the big boys from Final Fantasy, but it would be cool if someone put more than seven seconds into modeling a proper Aya. The poor gal just gets no respect.

Of course, Parasite Eve: Third Birthday happened eleven years later, so it’s not like this was the worst slight Aya would ever have to experience…

And that’s it for contemporary Square heroes and heroines. No representation from Tobal, Einhänder, or a certain brave fencer. But that’s because Square didn’t need to look to its bountiful present, it was content to fill out the rest of its bonus characters with protagonists from its past. Classic 8-bit Chocobo (complete with ancient chocobo sprite) is pretty much a shoo-in, as this is, ya know, Chocobo Racing. The S.S. Invincible of Final Fantasy 3 is similarly expected, as the ol’ airship is another Final Fantasy mainstay. The only issue is that a certain region wouldn’t recognize anything from Final Fantasy 3 for another decade or so, but an airship is an airship (don’t tell Cid I said that). And our final 8-bit star is Jack.

GO JACK GOOh, sorry. Don’t know Jack? He’s from 3-D WorldRunner aka The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner. In the grand scheme of things, the game was little more than a Space Harrier-esque shoot ‘em up for the NES. It was very technically impressive for its time, and included some landmark 3-D finagling on a system that was not meant for any more dimensions than two. But it isn’t exactly Super Mario Bros. 3, so you’d be forgiven for missing out on ol’ Jack’s adventures. Except there’s one other important factor in Jack’s life: 3-D WorldRunner is designed by Hironobu Sakaguchi (the man that conceived of Final Fantasy) and Nasir Gebelli (the head programmer of Final Fantasy and other titles), and the music was composed by Nobuo Uematsu (music lead of a solid ten or so Final Fantasy titles). So, yes, Jack was birthed by the same men that created Final Fantasy, and saw the franchise go from Square’s final fantasy of success to a series that apparently deserved its own kart racer.

And then that same franchise damned the entire company with a movie, and it was eaten alive by its hungriest competitor.

1999 was a bridge between the start of Square Ltd. and its impending finale. Square would soldier on, in one form or another, and continue to create amazing games; but it would never be the company that birthed Jack, the chocobo, and Aya Brea again. It would be a company that would drop the humble goblin for a slime, and some small part of its history would be forever lost.

But we’ll always have Chocobo Racing.

FGC #508 Chocobo Racing

  • System: Playstation 1, and no rereleases as far as the eye can see. Apparently it was a PSOne Classic in Japan, though, so I guess it works on PSP in some far off land.
  • Number of players: Pretty sure this one didn’t attain Mario Kart 64’s heights, and is constrained to a mere two racers.
  • Go away, birdMaybe actually talk about the game for a second: The fact that there is a complete story mode with characters and motivations and world-threatening (kinda) issues is exactly what you’d expect of a 1999 Square title, but, aside from a fun ‘n silly plot, there isn’t much to distinguish Chocobo Racing from the many other kart racers of the era (or, uh, any gaming era). The actual layout of the courses seems to be the biggest issue, as they’re either “simple dumb circle” or “7,000 right angles”, and there are very few maps between those two extremes. Feast or famine with this bird racer.
  • Hey, what about Chubby Chocobo? Chubby Chocobo brings me no joy, and forces me to remember aggravating inventory management issues in earlier Final Fantasy titles. Oh? He’s also available as a one-in-twenty summons chance in Final Fantasy 7? Screw random number generators! I’m not acknowledging Chubby Chocobo’s existence at all!
  • Magic Time: The items (what do you call a red shell?) of Chocobo Racing are all magic from the Final Fantasy series. And the usual spells map surprisingly well to a kart racer. Haste, Fire, Reflect: these are all standard “moves” in other kart racers. Even Mini slides in there without any need for a Toad dropping poison mushrooms.
  • So pureFavorite Racer: I choose to believe Squall is annoyed at all times by his fellow cutesy racers, and is now assuming he is experiencing one of Laguna’s weirder earlier memories. Squall dreamed he was a kart racer, and it was awful.
  • Did you know? There isn’t a single Golden Chocobo in this game. How did that even happen?
  • Would I play again: Nah. This game is an excellent time capsule for Square’s last independent days, but it’s not exactly the most fun game in the world. Kart racing is one place where the N64 won the console wars, and Final Fantasy isn’t going to change that.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Wheel of Fortune! Would you like to buy a vowel? Well you just might! Please look forward to it!

FGC #503 Final Fantasy 5

Not very finalLet’s talk about why you think the end of the world is a good idea.

Final Fantasy 5 has become one of the most enduring Final Fantasy titles. No, it has not yet warranted a direct sequel, nor is it receiving a high-definition remake featuring ring wraiths that really should have better things to do with their un-lives. Unfortunately, from a Square-Enix perspective, Final Fantasy 5 has been little more than a piddly JRPG that occasionally gets rereleased on cell phones. But the Final Fantasy fan community has been milking Final Fantasy 5 in new and interesting ways practically since its inception. Back in the day, thanks to FF5 never reaching Western shores, it was one of the first games that encouraged a generation to learn how to patch a rom to experience Final Fantasy Extreme. From there, fans continued to support this 1992 release well into the future with online competitions to see who could hate their life the most thanks to a twitter-based robot prescribing the use of berserker after berserker. Recently (well, relatively recently in the lifespan of FF5, as we’re talking about a game that is old enough to realize it has done nothing with its life, oh God, it can’t even think about having kids right now) fans seem to have come full circle, as there was the “Ancient Cave” mod for FF5, which itself needed a new English translation patch. This “whole new way to play” essentially turns Final Fantasy 5 into a rogue-like, using the already amazing backbone of FF5 gameplay and transcending genres. Not bad for a game that was released the same year as Night Trap!

Let's kick itBut if you’ve never played Final Fantasy 5, you may be asking why exactly this title is so enduring even among its luminous peers. Final Fantasy 6 or Final Fantasy 12 may be widely regarded as amazing, but you don’t see anyone saddling up with Ultrosbot for an annual online competition. Final Fantasy 11 or Final Fantasy 14 may have servers that will keep going until a meteor strikes the planet, but neither title has had the kind of fan support that has endured from day one to day 10,000. There’s a Final Fantasy 7 Remake, not a Final Fantasy 7 Ancient Cave. And why is that? Because Final Fantasy 5 is the perfect intersection of simple and complex. Final Fantasy 5 can be completed in a scant few hours (well, by JRPG standards), but there are 500 different ways to complete the game. And why? It’s the fabulous job system of Final Fantasy 5. This system has been seen before in the franchise, and would certainly be seen again, but here in FF5 it is somehow at its most pure. It is to the point that you could legitimately complete all of Final Fantasy 5’s challenges as your favorite combo of fighters, or with an entire party of Geomancers (which, to be clear, is no one’s favorite). Under the hood, FF5 is an incredibly well-balanced experience, and it is all thanks to a gameplay system that is immediately understandable and unerringly complex. You can be a Knight that just smacks things with swords, or memorize the Periodic Table of Elements to master the powers of the Chemist class. Both are worthy options! This is no mere advertising bullet point: you really can play Final Fantasy 5 a different way every time.

The enduring love of this Final Fantasy Fandom is all because of this amazing job system. And how do you get a job in Final Fantasy 5? Why, you simply watch the world fall to pieces.

And, don’t worry, it’s exactly as bad as that sounds.

I know that guyFinal Fantasy 5 is generally regarded as one of the more cheery Final Fantasy adventures. There aren’t any child suicides, the main protagonist is unerringly optimistic and not a sullen dork, and your prerequisite dead party member is an old man that already had his time to shine, not a 20-something young lady who still had so many folding chairs to master. However, over the course of your adventure, the winds cease and stagnate, fire loses its warmth, and the very Earth begins to lose its life. An ancient forest is burned to the ground (with some medium-well fire), kingdoms fall to monsters, and cartographers hurl themselves off towers thanks to unprecedented, instantaneous continental drift. The sun might still be shining, and everyone might be smiling, but, right up until the world is ultimately saved, roughly a third of the world’s population has been sucked into a black hole. By pretty much any rubric, that’s a bad time for everybody. And what is the cause of all of this devastation? The life-sustaining crystals representing the four primal elements are gradually shattered over the course of our heroes’ adventure, and the world is increasingly worse for it. Every time a crystal breaks to pieces, everyone suffers more and more.

Well, except the Light Warriors. They’re only getting more and more power from each broken crystal.

The job system that so perfectly defines Final Fantasy 5 is only expanded thanks to the power of the crystals. Each new crystal shattering is a disaster for the world, but it is also the only time your heroes receive new jobs. And, since you, the player, wants to have as many jobs (and possibilities!) as possible, you’ll be happy every time a crystal explodes. An entire kingdom has gone up in flames? That’s rough, but you just gained the ability to become a ninja! Score! Cheer up, peasant, Bartz is gonna dual-wield over the ashy remnants of your former life!

This is great!And, for the player, advancement through misery isn’t limited to just the jobs system. “Cool stuff” in Final Fantasy 5 is continually gated behind outright tragedy. The ancient, ultimate weapons are under glass until the big villain can get through about 80% of his apocalyptic plan. Two high level summons are only possible after killing beloved pets and companions. Stella. STEEEEEEELLA! (“Cool trauma, bro, you get a new song.”) Final Fantasy 5’s plot leans heavily on the concept that much of the misery across its world is thanks to the sins of the previous generation, regardless of whether they were well meaning heroes or older societies attempting to drain extra power from the crystals; but did they all have to pay for their sins with death? And did that death have to refill your HP for the final battle? Can there be a single catastrophe in this universe that doesn’t directly benefit the player?

And, while this may be a particularly egregious example of this trope, it is by no means the only videogame where this is the norm. Mega Man X hates killing his fellow reploids, but boy do you sure love getting shiny new weapons. Sad dads are continually sad about being sad dads that are forced to make sad choices, but you better believe you enjoy soaking in the tangible trophies of their sad carnage. And some games can’t even get going until an apocalypse has already happened! It would be downright psychotic to shoot congregating shoppers at the mall, but if they’re an army of infected zombies, you don’t even stop to reload. The message to your average videogame player is clear: once things go to absolute $^#%, that’s when you’re really going to shine. After the end of the world, that’s when you are rewarded.

And it’s important to note that that is some very dangerous thinking.

I know those guysFor future generations that may be reading this blog entry in the east wing of the Goggle Bob Museum of Stuff Goggle Bob Liked So He Got a Museum Museum, this entry is being written in the middle of a global pandemic. It has changed practically everything about our daily lives, and has killed literally thousands and thousands of people. It would not be a stretch to call this a sort of apocalypse, and it would be very much correct to designate this entire situation as a disaster. One way or another, it is a time when, for one reason or another, absolutely everyone needs all the help they can get. And what help would that be? Well, some people need readily accessible food, some people need other people to stay home so they can do their life-saving jobs, and some people just need the kind of emotional support that becomes necessary when you spend days and months isolated from human contact. And do you know what is zero help at all? People that know Rapid Fire, how to summon meteors, or anyone whose job could be listed as “Samurai”. Despite the terms “hero”, “war”, and “invisible enemy” being tossed around, the last thing this situation needs is people who think they can solve a problem by hitting it. The heroes of Final Fantasy 5? And the heroes of every videogame? They’d all be completely useless in this situation (save maybe Dr. Mario). We’re dealing with a global catastrophe on a scale worthy of Exdeath, but the idea that some Light Warriors could come and save everyone is ludicrous.

And it sounds obvious to say such a thing out loud, but it’s important to remember this information for… lesser disasters. Not everything is a global calamity. Sometimes bad things happen, and you don’t so much as get a crystal shard for your troubles. Videogames (and so much of fiction in general) runs on the concept that every cloud has a silver lining, and a tragic death in act two just means that a friendly ghost is going to help everyone in act three. That is not reality. He bitesSometimes you just lose. Sometimes you have to live with pain and suffering, and the best you can hope for is the mental fortitude to not dwell on it for the next twenty years. PTSD does not grant a level up bonus. Yes, it’s easy to nod and agree with this notion when reading it from the relative comfort of the internet, but your subconscious has been soaking up the hidden morals of Final Fantasy 5 and its ilk for decades. The world is falling apart! I hope I get a legendary sword out of the deal!

So what’s today’s moral? Final Fantasy 5 is an amazing game, but remember it’s only a game. Even after you strip out the talking turtles and magic trees, it’s still not even approaching reality. Keep that in mind as you make decisions in our all-too-real world. There aren’t any Warriors of the Crystals running around, and you’re not going to be granted a new job just because society is falling apart. Be the kind of hero this world really needs, not one that thinks they can solve problems with a “fight” command.

The end of the world isn’t good for anybody.

FGC #503 Final Fantasy 5

  • System: In Japan, originally on the Super Nintendo. In America, we had to wait for the Playstation. Eventually, everybody got it on the Gameboy Advance. And now it’s on a bunch of Playstations and cell phones.
  • Number of players: Final Fantasy 6 was the one with the 2-player, 2-controllers option, right? I think it’s just one this time.
  • BLAMPort-o-Call: Give me the Gameboy Advance version any day of the week, as it seems to have the best translation. And by “best” I mean “the one that contains nonsensical references to early 21st Century internet culture”. That’s all I want from a game! And there’s a bonus dungeon with bonus bosses and bonus jobs, too, I guess.
  • Favorite Monster: The Unknown creatures in the undersea rift are unpleasant to look at, just like a good monster should be. Second runner up is the tonberry, which makes its first appearance here in Final Fantasy 5, but didn’t really come into its own until the great doinkening of Final Fantasy 8.
  • So, what were your jobs: I played fast and loose, game genied my way to every job at the start, and just had some fun seeing if Necromancer is a remotely viable job in the first dungeon. Spoilers: it’s not great. Final Fantasy 5 is a game with such a glut of options, it practically encourages cheating your way into ridiculous, possibly Chemist-based situations. Just have fun with it, and, just in case you slot in a berserker before a sand worm fight, remember to save often.
  • Favorite Job: Blue Magic also appeared for the first time in Final Fantasy 5, and, considering it grants its user a spiffy blue mask, Blue Mage is my favorite job. It doesn’t hurt that a lot of the abilities are overwhelmingly overpowered… but the same can be said for about a quarter of the jobs in Final Fantasy 5, so we’re just going to stick to what is commonly referred to as “the cape factor”.
  • Goggle Bob Fact: I first played this game emulated on a PC that didn’t even have a sound card. Battle on the Big Bridge? More like skirmish on the extremely quiet overpass. But at least I had the good sense to play the game after some nerd fixed all the transparency issues.
  • Axe you a questionDid you know? Each of the characters has default stats that make some slightly better suited for different jobs. Krile, for instance, has the greatest agility, so she’s better suited for… Bah! Who cares!? All that matters is they can all be Dancers, so just let ‘em dance.
  • Would I play again: Yes. Final Fantasy 5: excellent game, bad moral. Don’t go chasing apocalypses, kiddies!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Metroid Prime 3: Corruption for the Nintendo Wii. Oh good! I’m going to watch more planets explode. Please look forward to it!

FGC #501 Alundra

Dream about a better lifeLet’s take a look at Alundra, the most compellingly anarchist game on the Playstation

Alundra is a 1997/98 adventure jaunt originally released on the Playstation (1). It is a generally fondly remembered title, as it’s basically the 32-bit sequel to A Link to the Past that many fans wanted, but were so cruelly denied by a certain 3-D boy with a woodwind. This is a game featuring enigmatic dungeons and dangerous foes, but it also not so subtly evokes some fairly iconic moments and items from a game released years earlier. The line between “familiar”, “homage”, and “outright plagiarism” has never been as thin as when you grab an ice wand from a mini, hidden dungeon to storm a northern volcano to take down a gigantic dragon boss. But that’s not a bad thing! Whether you’re calling it the spiritual sequel to Zelda or Landstalker (reminder: 50% of Zelda games released before ’97 involved significant amounts of jumping), Alundra is still an excellent game in its own right. These dungeons really are innovative, and Alundra deliberately sticks to its guns without delving into half-baked minigames like a lot of other games from the era. This is pure adventure gameplay from start to finish, and, considering this is a robust Playstation title, this really could be the “traditional Zelda game” that could satisfy fans for a console generation.

But that’s only half of why Alundra is so fondly remembered. Alundra is a title with a unique twist: Alundra can enter people’s dreams, and apparently everyone is dreaming about complicated dungeons filled with monsters. Thus, Alundra’s mystical hook allows for a number of exceptional areas that wouldn’t otherwise appear in this world’s vaguely tropical setting. Yes, of course we’re dealing with a videogame where an ice dungeon can be next to a fire dungeon with little to no explanation, but it’s fun when the prerequisite “four elementals” dungeon is the result of a nightmare attempting to accommodate a victim with multiple personality disorder. We’re still a few years away from full-blown Psychonauts territory, but Alundra does know how to separate its set pieces from the established obstacles of the era.

And, while innovative excuses for excellent gameplay are what established Alundra as one of the best games for the Playstation, there’s one important part of Alundra that seems to be all but forgotten: Alundra is emotionally brutal.

Yay jumpingNo one is claiming Alundra is the first videogame to include death. Alundra came hot on the heels of the likes of Final Fantasy 4, one of many games where half the playable cast is heroically killed across the adventure (they get better). And Alundra technically competed on its own system against a title featuring one of the most well-known deaths in all of gaming (I am, of course, referring to the death of the Lost Vikings franchise). Alundra was released when gaming (or its audience) was starting to find its way to some kind of emotional maturity, and that inevitably meant that fewer heroes were being “sent to another dimension” and were actually starting to feel the cold embrace of death. Alundra sees his hometown (well, “hometown”) burn. Supporting, helpful townsfolk die. Alundra’s beloved old man mentor is killed. People die, you have to deal with it, and that’s all pretty par for the course. People die, but you’ll save the world in the end. Same as it ever was.

But Alundra finds new ways to pervert traditional expectations so these deaths have an impact. Early in the adventure, Alundra is tasked with entering the dream of one critically injured miner so he can then save another trio of miners trapped in a monkey-based avalanche. Of course the critically injured miner dies, but he died imparting important information to dear Alunda. He’s going to venture right into that mine, and find… oh, one of the miners died. Another one, too? And when you find the final miner, it turns out he’s likely been dead since before this adventure started. His corpse is bloated and waterlogged. It… ain’t pretty. So congratulations, Alundra, you ventured into the mines and saved exactly no one. Death and despair are your only reward. And it won’t be the last time that happens! Alundra will venture through two entire dungeons searching for the mystical macguffins of his chosen quest, and on two separate occasions he’ll be informed that the villains beat him to the punch, and, geez, why did you even try, dude?

It is, to say the least, a little demoralizing.

DIEAnd that’s great! Well, it’s not great for Alundra or the player, but it is wonderful for setting the basic mood of desperation and sadness that permeates the events of Alundra. Alundra first encounters this dismal little hamlet when its citizenry is simply experiencing rotten dreams, but those issues seem to escalate rapidly to “deadly nightmares” and eventual “wholesale destruction”. Things are bad, and the player’s own inability to effectively curtail the horror reinforces the hopelessness of Alundra’s lot in life. By the end of the game, literally everyone you have ever saved from a bad dream is dead, save a pair of twin children who were used as a magical monkey massacre gate. And did we talk about those dreams? It’s not just a gameplay conceit: nearly everyone seems to be dreaming of “dungeons”, and when was the last time you encountered a pleasant dungeon? Want to know what I dreamed about last night? We were at my mother’s house, and for some reason one of her cats was able to talk, and the cat was really weirdly racist. It kept saying that Koreans could always be distracted by a game of chess. It was disconcerting, and I woke up troubled by whatever my subconscious is doing. But I didn’t dream about a gigantic eyeball monster surrounded by spikes and lava. That’s what everyone in Alundra is stuck with, and that is going to lead to a lot of restless nights.

MONKEY!But this all pales to the general perversion of prophecy in Alundra. Sybill is a character that imparts her visionary dreams to Alundra and the player. And we all know how this one goes, right? She predicts something is going to happen, and, because this is a videogame, that thing eventually happens, despite everything you do to prevent it. It is how videogame prophecies work. It is how prophecies work in all of fiction. So you’re shown a vision of a man sacrificing himself so your buddy will then create a powerful magical sword. It’s sad, someone is going to die, but at least you’ll get the Master Sword that can defeat Ganon. Guys, act surprised when it happens, that way we won’t have to scream “spoilers” at a little prophetess.

And then someone kills the prophetess, because of course that happens.

And then someone saves the guy that is supposed to die. Okay, that was unexpected, but…

Oh, and then someone kills the dude that was supposed to forge the evil-busting sword. And the pattern of him making useful items for you after every villager’s death is broken because he’s super dead. His funeral was really long, and he isn’t coming back.

Sorry, player, no awesome new sword for you, because everybody is dead. Nothing you could do. Nothing you can ever do. Loser.

So what do you do? As is often the answer, you beat the shit out of god.

Except, if you follow the details of this story, you realize god isn’t so much god in this story. He’s the ruling class.

It's a pipeAlundra has a fairly robust mythological backstory for a game featuring a gigantic gorilla that can only travel by twirling its fists. In short, Alundra’s world used to have a collection of colossi as its gods, but they wound up fighting over the honor of being the one god among gods, and, yada yada yada, they’re all dead. And, what’s more, by the time they had finished fighting, all of humanity had forgotten they were useful gods anyway, so their whole conflict was kind of a wash. Enter Melzas, the antagonist of this tale, a creature that came from beyond the stars and thought he could give this whole “become as gods” thing a shot. He granted wonderful dreams to the local royalty, and managed to get the population on board with building shrines and statues in his honor. This worked out really well until about five years ago, when Melzas slipped up and the king somehow found out he was worshipping a malevolent alien. All of the churches and alters dedicated to Melzas were smashed, and poor ol’ Melly had to manipulate his remaining followers from the shadows. He didn’t want to wind up like those poor giants that came before, so he hatched a plan to scare the locals into praying to him. This worked for a time, but then Alundra, a dude that could stomp out these scary dreams, showed up. This meant Melzas had to upgrade the horrors being visited upon the townsfolk, and that eventually led to a pretty healthy body count. By the time Alundra has to storm Melzas’s sunken castle, the whole of the world as Alundra knows it has turned against their god, and they have chosen Alundra as their new protector and “hero”.

Wet DreamAnd, while that seems to be a pretty typical JRPG finale (time to fight god again), something very important happens here: it’s not just the hero fighting, it’s the people rebelling. When this story begins, everyone is worshipping Melzas as a god, because that is what they have always done, and they believe Melzas has their best interest at heart. Over the course of the adventure, the people find that Melzas would gladly sacrifice as many people as it takes to maintain his power. Sorry, children, grandma has to die, because Melzas thinks it is in Melzas’s best interest. This happens over and over again: death and destruction, and their god does nothing. When it’s revealed that this “god” is responsible, it’s almost a relief for his pitiable “followers”. He wasn’t helping them because he was the cause of their woes. All the misery visited upon everyone (Alundra and the player included!) was thanks to one despot that keeps claiming he’s going to make Inoa great again, but never does. The only one that was actually helping was Alundra! Let’s help Alundra! Let’s give him all of our prayers! Because the guy we were following sucks.

And then Alundra wins! Good times forever! And maybe… anarchy?

The ending seems to imply that Alundra defeated Melzas, returned to the village for a little wine, women, and song, and then headed out to do the typical hero adventurer thing. Other dungeons to conquer, other villages to save, talk to you guys later. Is there a replacement god for Melzas? Nope. Every remotely divine being in the area has already been slain. The demons are dead, but the gods are, too. And good riddance! Melzas and every other wannabe god in this story caused nothing but unhappiness or relied entirely on Alundra. God is dead, Alundra killed him, and we’re all going to be better off without him.

Big dudeWhat did this ruler ever do for his people? Nothing. And no one is anxious to hire another god to see the same thing happen again. Alundra is the last man standing that received any prayers, and he’s blown this popsicle stand. What does this village have left? Who is in control of their lives now?

No gods, no masters, only Alundra.

FGC #501 Alundra

  • System: Playstation and Playstation 3 (through PSN). I’m not sure what it would require, but somebody please go ahead and get this on the Switch.
  • Number of players: Alundra is number one!
  • Say something mean: Alundra’s overworld is expansive and just plain fun to explore, but it reminds me a bit too much of Link’s Awakening… and not in a good way. It is a royal pain to have to switch your weapons and items every three seconds because you encounter four different, continually respawning obstacles on your way to the west, and I would be much happier with something approaching a “ring menu” or L/R weapon switching or… something. Exploring the world is fun! But could we maybe not have to juggle between fire rod and mace every seven seconds?
  • You don't know how hard it was to pull this offMagic Hour: Alunda can use magic! … But you only ever attain a maximum of four charges, so it’s kind of useless. And your magic points are displayed as a collection of miniature, rotating crystals, which I can assure you distract my wandering eyes at all times. I keep expecting a quartet of tiny Light Warriors to invade my HUD!
  • Sexual Dimorphism is a Scourge: First of all, you can’t tell me Meia, the only other dreamwalker in this world, wasn’t designed as Alundra’s player two. Those two have sprites that are way too similar for a pair of wannabe lovers. Beyond that, Meia is done dirty by the plot, as exactly when you discover that she has a tragic backstory involving religious persecution and more than a little stake-burning, she becomes super-duper useless, and never does anything ever again save offer advice like “fight bad dreams” or whatever. She was just getting interesting! And now she’s forced to stand around in town with all the other doomed villagers and pray to Alundra? Lame! Give her the leading role in Alundra 2! She’s so much more interesting than the main elf.
  • For the sequel: Which reminds me, there is no Alundra 2. Never been such an animal on this earth. More of a cryptid, really.
  • Back to Work: This is another Working Designs localization, so expect enemies to take way too much damage, and more than a few “translations” that maybe weren’t there in the original text. A few highlights include…

    Hey stupid

    The occasional hurtful insult…

    He's dead now

    Hurtful insults toward extremely specific individuals…

    Blaze it

    And opinions on whether or not Alundra should, as the kids say, blaze it. Thanks, Vic!

  • Goggle Bob Fact: My raw, unbridled hatred for ice-block pushing in puzzle-esque games stems from this very title. I want to say the Ice Manor is the first area that all but required a teenage Goggle Bob to hang out on Gamefaqs begging for tips straight from the non-pros. The age of strategy guides was over… Or at least online resources were a lot cheaper.
  • Did you know? The best weapon in Alundra is the Legend Sword, which technically has a little over triple the attack power of the next best weapon. The catch? You can only obtain it through dying and “quick restarting” sixteen times. It’s the “you suck, here’s the assist block” of 1997. But when you consider how much HP some of these bosses have, well…
  • Would I play again: This is a great game that is long and strong and down to get the gameplay on. I will play it again within my lifetime… it just might not be immediately. The last dungeon is a bit too time consuming for me to jump right back in again.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Day Dreamin’ Davey for the NES! Wow, ROB, that’s some surprisingly effective dream synergy between titles. You get an extra pork roll as a treat, and we get a NES game that has been all but forgotten. Please look forward to it!

Toasty

FGC #492 King of Fighters (Franchise)

Sports!If you want to understand the essence of a videogame crossover, you need look no further than King of Fighters ’94.

King of Fighters was initially imagined as a beat ‘em up titled Survivor. The prototype featured characters from The Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury (two established SNK fighting games) battling in teams of three against waves of vaguely anonymous mooks. Given both of the parent games were about burly dudes fighting against criminal gangs, this seemed like a natural progression in both storylines and gameplay. But, presumably because fighting games were really hitting their stride around the early 90s, Survivor the beat ‘em up mutated into King of Fighters the fighting game. The concept of three-man teams survived the transition, and, more importantly, King of Fighters maintained its status as a crossover title involving two popular SNK franchises.

And then things got weird. Two more games were included in the crossover hijinks: Psycho Soldier Starring Athena and Ikari Warriors. And if you’re curious what those games look like…

She's psycho

Pew pew

So what happens when you try to marry that to something like this?

Let's fight

Well, in the end, you wind up with this:

Now we're fightin'

But it might take a moment to get there.

To understand what happened, you have to understand the insane leaps and bounds that happened in gaming in the 80s and 90s. Remember Pac-Man? His debut was released in 1980. Pac-Man could be controlled with zero buttons, one four-way paddle, and a human being that didn’t need to understand anything more than “Pac-Man go wakka wakka”. Pac-Man had no “moves” other than simply moving, and his opponents were four of the same guy in different colored coats. Pac-Man did not jump, duck, dash, or even attack in any way that didn’t just involve steering around a maze. And even when Ms. Pac-Man or Super Pac-Man made the scene, it was still the same basic gameplay that was little more than tracing your finger around a children’s menu placemat. But, from there, we graduated to games where there was shooting, jumping, and the occasional bit of shooting and jumping. Games that started with “Mario go hop” evolved into finding ways that one could attack or otherwise interact with the world through that jumping, and, by as early as the late-80’s, we already needed tutorials and alike to explain exactly what happens when you use a grenade over your basic rifle.

Go idol!So Ikari Warriors, essentially a top-down copy of Contra (… which gets no credit from this blog for being released a year before Contra), was released in the early days of games becoming “complicated”. There were two buttons! You could control a man and a tank! Two players could simultaneously coordinate their attacks and work together! Or compete for powerups! Ikari Warriors was much more complicated than Pac-Man or Space Invaders, but it still wasn’t that complicated. Run ‘n gun is the basic gist of it, and you really don’t need an intricate control scheme to dodge bullets. And, while the setting is very different, Psycho Soldier, released the same year, is a very similar situation. This game is 2-D, and it features school children with psychic powers, but it still boils down to “dodge attacks, shoot bad guys”. In this case, the “complicated bits” involve debating on whether or not to conduct some light demolition when the auto-scroll is bearing down on your idol, and considering the merits of grabbing a powerup that may or may not be erased about seven seconds later by an errant giant beetle. It’s… a weird game. Regardless, in both Ikari Warriors and Psycho Soldier, we’ve got gameplay significantly more complicated than “pizza man stuck in a maze”.

But it ain’t no fighting game.

It is the belief of Gogglebob.com and its subsidiaries that fighting games require the most complicated “controls” of any genre. There are games that, on a whole, are more complicated (looking straight at you, TRPGs), but usually those “complicated” games require a meager “point and click” or “press A on the right menu” interface. Meanwhile, fighting games often have more required action buttons than your average console controller, intricate motions for “specials”, and even more elaborate patterns for those all-important super/hyper/tension moves. This isn’t to say that there aren’t fighting games that eschew those convoluted controls, but most fighting games still trace back to a certain title that included six different fighting buttons that may or may not have produced different results if you were standing or moving.

Stabby stabbyOr, put another way, in 1991, there was a new videogame where a hedgehog could run, jump, crouch, and roll. Also in 1991, there was a new game where a karate champion could walk, block, crouch, defensive crouch, back flip, forward flip, jump, jab, strong punch, fierce punch, short kick, forward kick, roundhouse, jump jab, jump strong punch, jump fierce punch, jump short kick, jump forward kick, jump roundhouse, crouch jab, crouch strong punch, crouch fierce punch, crouch short kick, crouch forward kick, crouch roundhouse, throw a fireball, hurricane kick, and dragon punch. Same year, two very fondly remembered games, but just a smidge of difference between what their two protagonists can do.

So, yes, there’s a little bit of a difference between Psycho Soldier Athena and King of Fighters ’94 Athena.

Athena and Sie Kensou both originated from a side-scrolling action game. Ralf Jones and Clark Still (names changed in America to protect the innocent) originated in a top-down action game (and Heidern, their third teammate, too, but he was mostly just a talking head). The ’94 American Sports Team of Lucky Glauber the basketball player, Brian Battler the football player, and Heavy-D! the boxer were meant to be evocative of their respective sports videogames of the era. How does Madden NFL ’94 gameplay translate to King of Fighters ’94? That’s Brian Battler’s beat! All of these characters from wildly disparate backgrounds and games were smooshed together, granted multiple attacks, special moves, and the occasional power move, and were able to fight on an even keel. King of Fighters ’94 found a way for Psycho Soldier Athena to stand shoulder to shoulder and fist to fist with Terry Bogard.

Lil' dudesAnd what’s important here is that what made these “transplant” characters themselves in the first place is still there. Athena has the ability to toss off magical, psycho power moves. Ralf is towing heavy artillery and fighting in front of his crashed transport. Lucky Glauber can dunk on his opponents in more ways than one. They all have their punches, kicks, and uppercuts like Joe Higashi or Ryo Sakazaki, but they also retain moves and abilities that distinctly evoke their initial appearances. The arena is different, but these fighters with incongruent pasts are still recognizable as evolutions of their original forms. Clark is still Clark.

And, while later King of Fighters titles would not revisit the idea of pulling characters from other genres for some time (the first it returned was in ’99 with Metal Slug’s Fio as a mere striker [assist] character, and then we barely saw it in any other way save for spin-offs or the absolute most recent edition), it set the standard for what videogame crossovers would have to be. A crossover in a movie, novel, or television program doesn’t require completely redesigning the guest star du jour. The Golden Girls can guest star on Teen Titans Go and it doesn’t mean Darkseid can’t appear in the same episode (it happened! Look it up!), but if the cast of Empty Nest (more things to look up!) wants to appear in Super Mario Bros, they better learn to jump over turtles. The Avengers can be the most robust crossover film in history, but that’s because it’s only a movie drawing from other movies. They didn’t have to adapt a single action hero to a fighting game at all, and that makes the whole experience so much easier. Can you imagine trying to figure out a moveset for Wong? And then balancing that against a Wakandian warrior? The mind boggles!

So thank you, King of Fighters, for showing us all what a videogame crossover must be. It’s not about dropping as many ingredients as possible into the broth like in any other medium, it’s about adapting every participant from their contrasting origins to the featured genre. It’s about making a balanced, enjoyable experience that incidentally includes stars from times in gaming that have long been forgotten. It’s about going from this…

I miss that guy

To this…

Let's smash!

So thank you, King of Fighters, for defining the videogame crossover for generations.

FGC #492 King of Fighters (Franchise)

  • System: Started out on the Neo Geo, but eventually migrated to various Playstation models. I’m sure the older versions are available on the Switch, too. So let’s just generically say it’s available wherever videogames are sold.
  • Number of players: Two. It’s a fighting game. It’s two.
  • Wait, wasn’t this article mostly about King of Fighters ’94, and not the whole franchise: Look, I’m not going to review each individual KoF game at this point, and ’95 is mostly the same as ’94 but with some much preferred upgrades, and some of the intervening games… Ugh, it’s already getting complicated. This article is my dedication to the franchise. I don’t want to get into explaining NESTS or why there’s now a idol sporting electric, fake eyeballs, and…. Stop it! This is just about King of Fighters and its impact on gaming at large. The end!
  • Get 'emYou really want to talk about the plot, don’t you? My main problem with the King of Fighters franchise is that, like some other games, what started as a simple crossover story rapidly added a host of original characters with singular motivations that made the entire experience completely impregnable to a player that just happened to be wandering through with a spare quarter or two. Kyo was an interesting addition to the cast that was deliberately built to appeal to the “new generation” (as Terry and Ryo were old men in their 20s by the time of KoF), but there was no way that entire plots needed to hang on his magical blood, fire-boy rivalry, or that time he got cloned for no apparent reason. Even when Kyo isn’t the literal center of the universe, you know you’re just five seconds away from his second cousin’s roommate appearing and declaring the start of “The Iron Blood Saga” or some such thing, and… can we just get a game where Samurai Shodown protagonists fight pachinko heroines?
  • So do you have an explanation for this timeline where characters established as being from the 70s battle the large, adult sons of other combatants? Nope! Moving on.
  • Favorite Character(s): Chang Koehan the giant and Choi Bounge the wee gremlin sporting a spiky hand are my favorite picks across the franchise. They’ve had a few other teammates over the years, so I can’t just say “Korean Team” or “Villains Team”. It’s those two. They’re awesome. They brought a wrecking ball to a fighting game. And apparently they were both originally conceived to add some levity to the initially dour cast of King of Fighters, so, ya know, mission accomplished.
  • Favorite King of Fighters game: In this case, the most recent one is the best one, and that appears to be King of Fighters 14. After 13 was an unimpressive dud, 14 came roaring back with amazing graphics, an excellent “feel”, and more fanservice than I could shake a buster wolf at. My understanding is that this KoF is the start of a new storyline for the franchise, and I eagerly await whatever may be next.
  • You got 'emGoggle Bob Fact: I generally avoided this franchise in my childhood thanks to a Fighting Game Player’s Guide I picked up for Mortal Kombat information that incidentally covered the most recent King of Fighters game, too. The inputs for the KoF fighters looked so insane I didn’t even try the franchise for years for fear of having to properly activate Terry’s overly complicated burning knuckle or whatever. Fatal Fury 3, unfortunately, fell into the same boat. However, I eventually found King of Fighters ’95 on the Playstation (1) for a steal, and then I fell in love with a purple ninja and a boy with a stick. … Not literally. Mostly.
  • Did you know? The only team that did not return between King of Fighters ’94 and ’95 is the American Sports Team. Likely as a reference to this, multiple later games feature members of the team receiving invitations, but then being beaten and losing said invitations to other, newer (and usually more interesting) teams. But they seem to keep reappearing for cameos in other King of Fighter games (and even their spinoffs), so at least they’re still getting work.
  • Would I play again: King of Fighters isn’t my favorite fighting game franchise (or even my favorite crossover fighting game franchise), but it’s still a fun time, so I’ll give some of these titles another go in the near future. Who doesn’t like psycho soldiers fighting regular soldiers?

What’s next? Crossover “Week” (I have really got to figure out a good title for “six articles with one basic premise” situations) continues with a look at a different kind of crossover to hit the arcades. It might not be a Vs. game, but it’s certainly got “Vs” in the title. Please look forward to it!