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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 #502 Day Dreamin’ Davey

Behold the game that accidentally enshrines a sacred trifecta of gaming.

Day Dreamin’ Davey is clearly an odd duck. For one thing, for reasons no one seems to understand, DDD is widely believed to have been a cancelled NES game. Maybe this was the result of some confusing Nintendo Power coverage? Or perhaps one random nerd on the internet claimed it only existed in ROM form, and that was how a myth was born? No matter. What’s important is that Day Dreamin’ Davey is a real game that is available in real cartridge form, and you could hop over to eBay and pick up a copy if you’d like. Buy it now for a Jackson! Or don’t! Because the game sucks out loud. Despite the pedigree of the incomparable HAL Laboratory publishing this happy little adventure, this is actually a Sculptured Software joint. Don’t remember Sculptured Software? Well please remind yourself of this poor Gorilla or the even more maligned Robin of Locksley. Day Dreamin’ Davey is very similar to those adventures, as it is another game that features strangely incongruent graphics, unresponsive controls, unpredictable death traps, and a propensity toward delving into different genres and playstyles without actually excelling in a single one. If you are looking for what could be defined as a good videogame on even the most basic level, skip DDD, as you’d be better served playing something at least passable, like a LJN title (wait a minute…).

I hate this placeBut, while Day Dreamin’ Davey might assault your eyes and fingers like some manner of freshly sentient paper shredder that has returned to visit revenge upon the user that has forced it to dismember so many documents, it does at least contain an interesting concept. Day Dreamin’ Davey was released in 1992, a time when videogames as a cultural concept were still fairly new, but had already established a firm grip on the hearts and minds of a generation of kids. And, as such, there were likely a number of children out there day dreamin’ about life being a videogame while participating in mundane chores like sitting through lectures or eating lunch (?). Day Dreamin’ Davey is meant to portray the experience of your average “Davey” during this time, when every errant comment or confrontation culminated with imagining the world as a fetch quest or boss battle. As someone that may or may not have been a child with ADD and a propensity to shout “Get equipped with… Socks!” every morning while getting dressed, I can safely say that many kids related to Davey’s continual attempts to turn rulers into swords. And, while it may have taken decades for the term to be defined so succinctly, the very concept of DDD did make a wee Goggle Bob “feel seen”. The only difference between my younger self and Davey was that Davey had a complete lack of an imagination! He never fantasized about fighting a giant robot even once!

Okay, yes, that might be a little unfair to poor Davey. Davey is limited by the fact that he exists within a NES game, and, if we’re being honest, you could only do so much with basic Nintendo Entertainment System hardware. The average juvenile could imagine a thousand fantasy scenarios to justify punching a bully in a face, but Davey is limited by the number of pixel costumes that can be glued to his bulbous head. Day Dreamin’ Davey screams “we had a budget” from top to bottom, and the fact that it was a NES title released the same year we were seeing the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or Super Contra didn’t inspire much confidence. This was a game rushed out the door so it would beat the inevitable collapse of its chosen system, and not a “culmination of a generation of hardware” title like Kirby’s Adventure. So, while Davey has ten day dream levels to fight through, they’re limited to three distinct “settings”, and each progressive stage in the same setting is just the further exploration of the same map/ideas as last time. It’s a pretty traditional setup for a NES game, and not terribly dissimilar from Super Mario’s original adventure only really featuring overworld, underground, and castle settings (“what about underwater?” “shut-up.”). No need to disparage Davey’s imagination for not fighting against the constraints of the console.

And what Davey did imagine? Well that’s how gaming was defined in the 80s.

STABSDavey’s first world is the typical medieval fantasy setting. We’ve got knights, dragons, and I’m pretty sure those are supposed to be hobbits continually biting at Davey’s ankles. Everything here is vaguely King Arthur themed (there’s a literal Excalibur lying around), but make it a little more generic, and it could be practically any fantasy videogame from the 80’s. A lot of early videogames were simply Dungeons and Dragons campaigns with one new thing. Final Fantasy was D&D with a floating techno castle or two. Dragon Quest was D&D with a unique bestiary. The Legend of Zelda was D&D with…. Okay, it’s just D&D. The first level is literally a dungeon with a dragon! So many videogames descended from table top gaming that was itself a direct descendent of Tolkien that borrowed from the likes of the King Arthur myths, and it all boiled down to one simple truth: man really wants to slay a giant, fire-breathing lizard. … Wait… is Super Mario Bros. a D&D campaign? No matter! Davey day dreams about dragon-slaying, so we’ve got that apparently base element of human desire covered.

And then we move on to the second setting for Davey: The Old West. In this case, Davey is deputized, and it’s his job to take out a few bad hombres terrorizing a tiny hamlet. Now, it may be your immediate thought that there were Western games, but they were by no means a dominant genre on the NES. And you’d be right! But the genre Davey is experiencing here isn’t just “Western”, it is the genre that Western belongs to: Gun. Davey is participating in a gun story. The parameters here? Davey is the law, and he alone can solve problems with his trusty firearm. Does that sound like something that is more prevalent on the NES (and all of gaming)? Have gun, it’s you against the aliens. Have gun, it’s you against a city full of drug dealers. Have gun for a hand, it’s you against robot masters. The Western trappings are just an excuse to draw Davey in a cool hat, everything else about this section is the same old story of one guy with a gun against the world. And that’s perfect for a videogame setting, so it was seen over and over again.

Hey cowboyAnd Davey’s third option for day dreamin’ is Ancient Greece. Give or take a kid that icarused around, this setting seems like the most unique for the time. Even if an ersatz Link was once forced to battle in Olympus, the era of philosophers and Spartans is not exactly overrepresented in gray, plastic cartridges. But then Davey reminds you that he is fighting a cyclops. And satyrs. And by about the time that Davey fights past an army of skeletons lurking in Hades, it becomes obvious: “mythology” as a genre is what keeps the gears of games going. If a title isn’t sampling an age of dragons and knights or modernity (gun!), its opponents likely have Greek origins. Medusa has turned many a would-be hero to stone, and Charon has ferried more than a few protagonists for a coin or two. It doesn’t matter if this is a temple or a haunted mansion, there’s a minotaur. Davey might go the extra kilometer by including Plato, but his visit with Athena has been seen in more than a few games.

So congratulations to Davey’s limited imagination. In a game that can barely clear the bar of “decent hit detection” or “providing a marginal amount of fun”, Davey managed to feature the three most prominent genres in 20th Century gaming. Hell, if Day Dreamin’ Davey included a level where he’s a sad dad trying to guide his helpless child through a level or two, it would have included future gaming genres, too.

Way to go, game everyone thought was cancelled, your limitations are iconic.

FGC #502 Day Dreamin’ Davey

  • System: Nintendo Entertainment System. Just because HAL is involved here, I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about Davey for Smash.
  • Number of players: Day dreamin’, like Davey, is a singular activity.
  • BANG BANGController Options: You can use the NES Zapper for the “shoot out” boss stages of the Old West areas. And, considering these events comprise maybe 0.03% of the game’s total play time, it’s uncertain why anyone would ever do such a thing. But keep that Zapper handy! Maybe trying to shoot a ten pixel-wide area is fun in some parallel universe where people played this on their CRTVs!
  • How the times have changed: Go ahead and show me a game made today where a child accidentally shoots his teacher with a (water) gun. Or nearly blinds a random classmate. Or beats a level by giving a bully a black eye. … Okay, that last one might have happened in Bully.
  • An end: This game is the definition of a story that “just ends”. I don’t think Davey even makes it through a full day of school-based day dreamin’. At a certain point (sometime roughly after lunch), the whole adventure just calls it quits, and Davey is declared a winner for not being sent to juvenile detention this week.
  • Favorite Level: Each of the three “worlds” seems to put an emphasis on a different aspect of the game. Medieval Times is more about the action and combat. Ancient Greece has more of an emphasis on finding particular items and using your inventory to overcome obstacles. And The Old West is more about resource management and rationing your money and bullets to properly police the town. Of the three, I’d rather the Old West section be the dominant playstyle, as I really like Davey’s hat it seems the most interesting and nuanced.
  • ALSO BANGSSay something nice: There is exactly one surprising moment in Day Dreamin’ Davey, and that’s when, as part of the final Old West stage, Davey has to duck down a tunnel, and finds himself in the Underworld of Ancient Greece. It looks and feels like the game has glitched out and dropped Davey in the wrong level, but then Hades himself appears and says “Deputy, what are you doing here?” before teleporting Davey back to the familiar western town. It is the exact kind of “kiddy crossover” that any child with a decent imagination would create with the “toys” available in this game, and the fact that it can surprise an adult gamer is just icing on the cake.
  • Did you know? According to studies promoted by Google, people spend about 47% of their waking hours daydreaming. You would think there would be more videogames about something we collectively do for about half our days…
  • Would I play again: Absolutely not. This game feels like it was stitched together over the course of a long weekend. Everything about it is janky beyond any reasonable level, and it’s a lot more fun to play literally any other NES game. This is a confusing relic only to be played once every 500 or so games.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Final Fantasy 5! A game that, in its native Japan, was released the same year as Day Dreamin’ Davey, a game we shall never mention again! Now it’s time to get a job! Please look forward to it!

THE RIVER STYX
“Welcome to Hell, Davey.”

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 #495 Castlevania Judgment & Castlevania: Harmony of Despair

This is gonna be weirdYou want a videogame crossover, you’ve got options. But apparently you can’t have all the options.

The Castlevania franchise is fairly unique, as, right from its third entry, its creators decided to introduce different time periods. Like Zelda, it was determined you could only tell the same story with the same hero so often (apparently twice), and it was time to move on to a different epoch with the same basic trappings for the next adventure. However, unlike in The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania seemed to revel in introducing completely new characters with every age, and (depending on the quest du jour) also introducing an additional supporting cast or secondary antagonists. Unfortunately, all of these “extra” characters were always disposable, as all Castlevania ever really needed was a Dracula and a hero that could menace bats. This meant that, by about the mid 2000s, there were a handful of really great characters across the Castlevania franchise that only ever had one or two chances to shine. Such a waste. Why can’t all of our Castlevania stars find a way to play together and get along?

So why don’t we have a Castlevania Crossover featuring all our favorites? And, if the first one doesn’t shake out, let’s do it again!

It started with Castlevania Judgment. At a time when nearly every Castlevania title was sentenced to the miniscule portable systems of the time, there was much excitement about the first “real” Castlevania title on the Nintendo Wii (the dominant console of the era). But then Castlevania Judgment was… not what anyone expected. Anyone.

Get 'emFirst of all, it was a fighting game. But that could work! Castlevania is a platforming franchise, but it’s also always been about little more than burly dudes with long hair fighting demons from Hell. And that’s, like, 90% of fighting games (the other 10% are just karate tournaments), so that is a good fit. And this was during a period when fighting games were generally pretty experimental, so, before fighting games settled back into just being online matches to mirror the arcade fights of days long gone, the time was right for an innovative fighting game based on action/platforming gameplay. And a fighting game would be ideal for the Castlevania heroes that, since Symphony of the Night, had gradually been accruing more and more “moves”. Alucard could utilize an entire army’s worth of weaponry, magical spells, and an inexplicable jump kick. He could put Guile’s lousy sonic boom to shame without even trying.

Unfortunately, Castlevania Judgment was (to put it charitably) a little too experimental. It was neither fish nor fowl: in trying to be a fighting game that aped the motions of an action/platformer, it created an environment where the two fighters didn’t really know if they should be dodging encroaching zombies or attempting to punch (whip?) their opponent. Combos are futile when you might be interrupted by an errant jumping fish, but dodge-rolling around the arena while Dracula just stands there drinking wine is equally ineffective. And the way the movesets were limited for “simple controls” (the calling card of a game designed for the assumed-to-be-casual audience of the Wii) wound up contributing to many fighters that were savagely unbalanced. Yes, I know Maria was always better than Richter in their debut title, but getting wrecked simply because one player chose a little girl and her owl in a fighting game is an entirely separate experience. There’s a skeleton of a good game here (ha! Topical Castlevania metaphor!), but it needed another game’s worth of tweaking to hatch an actual enjoyable, enduring experience out of this egg (are there any monsters that “hatch” in Castlevania? Bah. More of a Metroid thing).

Hi, DadBut there was one place where Castlevania Judgment excelled: plot. Wait, no, that’s a lie. The plot is a stupid excuse to pull various Castlevania characters from 1456 to 1942 to fight a Grim Reaper from 10,000 years in the future. It’s barely worth mentioning (which is really sad when there’s a skeleton at the end of time involved). But what’s great about this title is that all the various stars of Castlevania are all allowed to interact. Finally! In fact, it involves a number of heroes and heroines that were nearly totally mute in their initial appearances, so we can finally see what’s going on in Simon’s head. It’s not all just terrible nights to have a curse! And the crossover of Judgment allows for the insanity of great grandpa versus distant descendant, which allows for even more story fun. It may be little more than fanservice, but, for a fan of the franchise, Castlevania Judgment justifies itself through its cast’s interactions. It didn’t matter that the art style was a few too many bodies short of a Legion, what mattered was that this was Eric interacting with Grant, and that was pretty damn cool.

But, for a videogame, gameplay is key, so Judgment is simply remembered for being a complete flop of a Castlevania experiment. It was by no means the “Castlevania returns to consoles” that everyone wanted. It was some weirdo title featuring the cast of Death Note, not Castlevania HD. No, if we wanted that, we had to wait for the “real” Castlevania HD: Castlevania: Harmony of Despair.

And that one was an odd duck, too.

Don't step on meSuperficially, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is nothing we haven’t seen before. Literally! C:HD is entirely assembled from Castlevania assets scrambled together from previous titles. It’s mostly just the IGA-vania titles (starting with Symphony), but there are also some significant Rondo and even 8-bit influences to be found here. And the gameplay, on a superficial level, is exactly the same the likes of Alucard or Shanoa have seen before: venture through a giant maze, stab some demons, collect a glut of treasure, and beat the damage-sponge of a boss. All very familiar, and, given this was at a time when we could rely on seeing a 2-D Castlevania title every other year or so, it was something that felt almost… extraneous.

But interpreting Castlevania: Harmony of Despair not as “this year’s recycled assets” but as a crossover culmination of the previous decade’s worth of Castlevania content paints a different picture. This is Metroidvania action in its purest form, which is something that is usually only available upon completing the latest Castlevania adventure. You don’t have to spend half of this title waiting to earn a double jump, or blow hours finding the right room that contains the right story flag to find the next area. This is just running, jumping, and exploring huge maps and battling worthy bosses. Exploration through unlocking has fallen by the wayside, yes, but what is left in its place is an uncontaminated Castlevania experience where you can just enjoy the innumerable of abilities of your chosen protagonist. If Castlevania is about man versus castle, then this is Castlevania to the Castlevaniaest power.

And the multiplayer options available to this title add a whole new dimension to the experience. You can cooperate! You can compete for treasure! You can select a character with a wildly different movement skill, and giggle as your ground-based buddy has to watch you fly through the sky on magnetic wings. There are a million ways to play with friends, and the “HD” of Harmony of Despair lends itself to a wonderful online experience where these enormous levels can easily house six active vampire killers. What we have here is not only a pure Castlevania experience, but a purely fun experience as well.

I am despairingBut there ain’t no plot. There’s no reason to do anything in Castlevania: Harmony of Despair past scoring points and clearing stages. You play C:HD for the same reason you play Madden or Tennis: just have fun with the game. And, while that is certainly a valid reason to play any videogame, it feels like a loss for the Castlevania franchise. Alucard likely would have a lot to say about pairing up with the reincarnated, pretty-boy version of his father, but C:HD doesn’t want to delve into that conversation. C:HD is about a magical book that contains magical heroes fighting a magical castle, and it’s nothing more than that. Everyone involved is just a 2-D simulation of their “real world” counterpart, and, while this is a crossover for every manner of sentient armor in the franchise, it is not a crossover for the iconic characters of Castlevania.

Which raises the question: which Castlevania Crossover wins? Castlevania Judgment eschewed typical Castlevania gameplay, but reveled in the personalities of its popular protagonists. Castlevania: Harmony of Despair was Castlevania gameplay taken to its most logical (and fun!) extreme, but reduced its iconic heroes to little more than different jumping stats. And the winner? Well, they both lost. Castlevania Judgment is regarded as an embarrassing diversion for the franchise that was never to be revisited again, and Castlevania: Harmony of Despair puttered out so completely it didn’t survive long enough to release its final planned DLC (Hammer! We could have had Hammer!). In both cases, both Castlevania Crossovers were disappointments to the curators of the franchise, and likely contributed in no small part to Castlevania rebooting and/or becoming a series of slot machines. Considering both Judgment and Harmony of Despair were epitomes of different aspects of the franchise, it’s rather depressing to see them both become epitaphs for an era.

But, hey, maybe watching the franchise die is appropriate for a pair of titles where you’re encouraged to kill Dracula about 17,000 different times. That dude can’t reincarnate forever!

FGC #495 Castlevania Judgment

  • Get 'emSystem: Nintendo Wii. This means it is technically also playable on the WiiU, but it was never officially ported to any other system due to, ya know, the embarrassment.
  • Number of players: If they’re fighting, they’re coming in twos.
  • Favorite Fighter: There’s no doubt about it, Maria Renard is a beast. I don’t care if she’s a 15 year old acting like a six year old and is mostly doing her damage through a particularly superb owl, she’s simply the best. And in this game where everyone looks like they spent a little too much time at Hot Topic, I’m also very happy to see that much pink.
  • Your Mileage May Vary: One big problem a number of people had with Judgment is that it includes characters from time periods divorced from their initial, iconic introductions. Sypha is a fledgling sorceress that has never encountered Alucard, Maria is a petulant teenager obsessed with “maturity”, and Bloodlines’ Eric is a petulant brat. This is a far cry from how these heroes act in their source material. However, I’m all for it, as I am a firm believer that people change over the years, and, sure, the stoic and dedicated “Wind” may have been a bit of a pissant when he was a kid. Who wasn’t? For anyone curious, this is basically a reverse “Cranky Old Man Luke Skywalker” syndrome, and I’m okay with it.
  • Why is this happening: It turns out that the whole plot of Judgment is the result of the evil plans of Galamoth, the future tyrant dinosaur wizard that cannot deal with Dracula being more powerful than a tyrannosaurus. This means that, ultimately, this title is another spinoff of Kid Dracula.
  • What’s in a name: Judgment only has one “e” in it.
  • Superb OwlDid you know? Of the default, non-DLC, non-needs-another-game-to-unlock characters, only Alucard appears as playable in both Judgment and Harmony of Despair. Shanoa joins Judgment if you connect Order of Ecclesia, and Maria and Simon both were added to C:HD as DLC, but only Alucard is there in both from the beginning. And he’s not even a Belmont!
  • Would I play again: I have a certain macabre fascination with this title. I don’t hate it… but I’m not really anxious to play it again. I like thinking about it, though!

FGC #495 Castlevania: Harmony of Despair

  • System: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The Playstation 3 version has local multiplayer, but the Xbox 360 version can be played on the Xbox One, so one might be more available than the other.
  • ZOOM!Number of players: Six. That… rarely happens.
  • Favorite Character: Shanoa if we’re talking about the default cast, but Yoko Belnades if we’re including DLC. What? I guess I enjoy dark magician girls.
  • Your Mileage May Vary: The “grinding” nature of Harmony of Despair and its rare boss drops is rather unpleasant. If you want the best gear, you’re going to repeat the same levels over and over, and there’s never anything fun about that. But then again, the whole point is to play these levels repeatedly to get better “scores”… so maybe this is a good thing?
  • But the DLC level that is just the entirely of Castlevania 1 as one complete map is the best, right? Oh, absolutely.
  • Love that castleDid you know? Even if he’s only 8-bit, with his double jump, slide, and collection of subweapons, Simon Belmont in Harmony of Despair is actually the closest he’ll ever be to his eventual incarnation in Super Smash Bros Ultimate. Granted, he’s still mostly just copying Richter… but it works!
  • Would I play again: Man, it sure would be nice to get an online gang together to raid Dracula’s castle again. You definitely lose something when you’re playing this game alone, but just revisiting it for this article reminded me how fun the whole experience could be. I’m sure I’ll be stalking those halls again soon enough…

What’s next? Let’s see what happens when two entire games ram straight into each other. Please look forward to it!

This is what Konami wants