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FGC #468 Shovel Knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it wasn’t anywhere near done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it all came from one Kickstarter.

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

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

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

Smash it Good!
Slash it Good!
Bonk it good

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

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

2010: The decade of Shovelry.

FGC #468 Shovel Knight

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

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

Shake it

Year in Review: 2019

Disappointment of the Year: Super Mario Maker 2

It's a-me!Said it before, and I’ll say it again: disappointment of the year does not under any circumstances mean that a game is bad. In fact, in this situation, I am talking about a game that is extremely good. I played a lot of Super Mario Maker 2 when it was initially released, as its new “story mode” and Nintendo officially created nonsense was like sweet honey to the bee that is me. However, after earning all the new doodads and slopes and blocks I could ever ask for, I fell off Super Mario Maker 2 hard. Maybe the “amateur” Mario Maker stages designed by others didn’t compare to the official challenges. Maybe all the Super Hard Mode level creators had already cut their teeth on the previous Mario Maker, and the toughest of the toughies were just too tough from literally day one. Or maybe it was a simple matter of I had already created all the Mario stages I ever wanted to create with the previous Mario Maker, and adding an angry sun or floating goomba wasn’t going to make enough of a difference in my design philosophies. Whatever the case, I lost interest in Mario Maker 2 within about a month of its release, and never really got on that horse again. And that sucks! I played the original Mario Maker for literally years! … And maybe that’s all the problem there needs to be. I was already burned out on Mario Maker 2 thanks to its obvious similarities to its forbearer, and, here I sit, mad at a videogame that dared to be exactly what I wanted. Actually, I’m not mad, just… disappointed.

Reason to not let me out of the house for the Year: Pokémon Go Trips

Let's a-go art!This will surprise absolutely no one, but I’m still playing Pokémon Go. There’s no sin in playing a fun little videogame that requires very little effort and can be fired up while walking around the neighborhood or standing in line at the theatre (that is, incidentally, a pokémon gym). However, I’m starting to think there might be an issue when you travel hundreds of miles to catch unique Pokémon in officially Niantic-sponsored events. 2019 was the year I drove to Canada and Washington DC to pick up a Tropius and Relincanth (respectively), and flew to Chicago (all things go, all things go) to earn a Pachirisu. I do not regret these trips, as it was a fine excuse to see new and exciting locales (and catch Pokémon), but I’m somehow officially at the point in my life where I’m planning vacations around a videogame. And there’s likely going to be a trip to Germany in 2020, so it’s clear I shouldn’t be allowed out of the house or anywhere near a plane.

Compilation of the Year: Castlevania Anniversary Collection

Castle!There’s usually a rerelease of Mega Man in this slot, but I can’t say no to Simon Belmont once in a while (and maybe, one year, there will be a Kid Icarus collection to laud, Captain N). This compilation couldn’t go too wrong, as it already includes at least three of my favorite games (Castlevania 2, Super Castlevania IV, and the venerable Castlevania 3), but it goes the extra mile by preserving Castlevania: Bloodlines for generations that maybe don’t have a Sega Genesis hiding in the crevasses of their entertainment center. And there’s Kid Dracula, a game never released in the states (mostly, as the Gameboy port is pretty damn similar). Couple this all with the Japanese version of Castlevania 3 (and the other games, I guess), and we’ve got an amazing collection of remarkable games with enough bells and whistles to make it interesting for the people that have already memorized Death’s every pattern. And I, let me assure you, am a man familiar with Death.

Remake of the Year: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Switch)

Froggy!I feel like I already spoke of this game in great detail a few weeks back, but just to reiterate: if ever a game needed a remake, it was Link’s Awakening. The original LA is amazing, but its cramped and humble origins are simultaneously its greatest strength and most glaring weakness. The small, tight dungeons of LA are astounding… but it sure would be nice if you could dash, jump, and slash all without having to open a pause menu. The LA remake went ahead and saved the precise dimensions of the original world, but granted it a refreshing coat of paint and a control scheme that can finally control all of Link’s abilities. And the addition of a weird dungeon/puzzle mode that is safely segregated off in the optional section is welcome, too. Marin’s return may be bittersweet, but everything else about Link’s Awakening for the Switch is right on target.

Title of the Year: SaGa: Scarlet Grace

25 years of waiting, and they still can’t come up with a title that makes a damn lick of sense. Oh well, not like anyone would have been enticed by a more accurately localized title like Impregnable JRPG: Anniversary Edition.

DLC of the Year: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Smash it!First of all, fun fact, if I had gotten off my duff and written this “year in a review” for 2018, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate would have won game of the year. It may have only been released in December, but, man, what a December of only playing one game over and over again because, dang, here’s everything I ever wanted from a videogame. But it’s not 2018 anymore! Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is old news, and now we’re all expected to move on with our Bloodstaineds and Pokémon Shields and whatever. But, luckily, every one of the four DLC packs that have been released for Smash Bros. has been an event unto itself, and I anxiously await future Nintendo Directs informing me of new spirit challenges, stages, and fighters. Sure, Anime High School BoyWW #10 Persona 5 or That Hat Dude might not be my first choice, but it’s hard to argue with the sheer level of excitement that accompanies each new release. Literally every other fighting game (or “fighting game”) could learn a thing or two from this hype train.

System of the Year: Nintendo Switch

Switch it upCan I just link to my reasoning for this from 2017? The Nintendo Switch feels like a big-boy system like its console brethren, but it is also portable as hell. How portable? I can play the latest Super Smash Bros, Mario Kart, Pokémon, and Super Mario titles all on one system without switching a game disc (cartridge, whatever). I can play entire retro compilations of Mega Man, Mega Man X, Castlevania, Contra, and, now for some reason, Breath of Fire. And, on top of it all, now we’ve got Super Metroid. It literally has it all! Except Chrono Trigger! Somebody work on that!

Game of the Year: Kingdom Hearts 3

Okay, I haven’t really talked about this much at all, but here’s the history of the last two years or so of the site.

Have a heartSince the site’s inception, I was very consistently updating the FGC three times a week. This was doable because, as of about two months in, I would write one or two articles a week, but then I would throw in the occasionally “easy” article (like something that was mainly picture based or involved a videogame I could blather on about for literally years), and, Bob’s your uncle, I had a significant backlog and “collection” of articles ready to go. This came to a close around March/April of 2018, when some professional and social opportunities started popping up at the same time, and I simply didn’t have a second to, on top of everything else, slice up screenshots and write about three videogames a week. My backlog of available articles diminished, and, eventually, I just plain had to take a break to figure out my new normal. I returned to one article a week in October… but I fell off that trolley again in December when the previously mentioned Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was released. I literally did not want to play or think about any other videogames, thank you. Please have a nice day.

But the site has returned to one article a week stability since April. Why? Well, it’s mostly thanks to Kingdom Hearts 3.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is, as the franchise has always been, bonkers. It is balls to the wall crazy. It is a story that hangs its “to be continued” on a random dude from the mobile game that is, incidentally, wearing a unicorn mask. A jerk that has died three times over the course of the franchise is somehow revealed to be another, different immortal than the cyclopean immortal that has been skulking around for the last six games. There’s a kid that wields a key like an axe even though that iconography has been moot since the first adventure. It is crazy.

And it’s my kind of crazy.

Double tech!And even more than that, it’s messy. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate might be a perfect game, but I can’t shake the feeling that that is entirely by some kind of insidious design. SSBU operates almost exactly like a free-to-play mobile game: there is a steady drip of content and rewards that keeps you playing just when you think it’s time to put down the controller. And, while SSBU isn’t selling you anything in particular (other than a season pass), it’s very easy to believe that this was meticulously designed to keep the player playing through every spirit and challenge block. Kingdom Hearts 3? There’s a game where, for reasons that will forever elude me, your hero stands around and watches the most famous three minutes from Disney’s most famous recent release, and literally nothing of any consequence happens. Did you want to watch your hero react to a Frozen music video? Of course you didn’t. No one did. But here it is, it’s happening, so sit back and watch, because it’s not like you can quit in the middle of a cutscene.

And that kind of nonsense? That’s something I can work with.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is a glorious mess, and that’s something I enjoy writing about. That’s something that gets me thinking about other unreasonable messes, like the current state of copyright law. That’s the kind of thing that inspires a series of articles about forgotten games. To put it simply, that’s the kind of thing that inspires me.

Raiden is pissedAnd then Mortal Kombat 11 was released, and, man, now I’m spoiled for splendid jumbles.

So it very much was not the “best” game of the year, but Kingdom Hearts 3 basically inspired me… nay… required me to write about videogames again. Beat that, Sekiro.

Games I’m sure are great, but I haven’t played: Too many to count

I just want to use this space to note that the odds of me ever playing Death Stranding are very, very low. Every review I’ve read seems to shout “you will not enjoy this”, and I’m just going to go with my gut on this one. I have a hard enough time carrying my groceries in real life!

Gogglebob.com Introspection 2019

I’m pretty sure I covered that in the previous paragraph. What’s important is that I still plan on doing 550 or so FGC entries, and we’re currently about a hundred shy of that goal. At one a week, we should be wrapping this all up in two years. That sounds pretty alright to me. Let’s see what 2020 will bring!

Oh, and here are some favorite articles from the year:

And that’s just a random smattering of what I enjoyed writing (and reading). What are your favorites? Gimme an answer (MMM, I am speaking directly to my only commentator).

What’s next? Just in time for 2020, the next two games are going to be my games for the decade. They’ve earned this station for two totally different reasons, but, for me, they encapsulate the last ten years of gaming. What are they? Well, guess you’ll find out. As ever, please look forward it!

FGC #440 Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight & Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight

EVERYBODY DANCE NOWLet’s talk about stones, and how much blood you can get out of them.

It all started back on the Super Famicom with Shin Megami Tensei. The SMT series was, at its core, a JRPG about playing Pokémon while the forces of Order and Chaos battled for the very soul of humanity. It was philosophical. It was deep. It was banned in the West, because Satan may or may not have made an appearance. And it kicked off an entire franchise of titles based on the simple dichotomy of order and chaos and a general need for humanity to steer penis monsters riding chariots. SMT wound up a success for Atlus, which spawned a number of sequels and spin-offs, the most popular (eventually) being Jack Bros. Persona.

The Persona series started as, essentially, a slightly less apocalyptic version of SMT. Yes, there are demons, angels, and the occasional Hitler running around, but they’re all operating on the fringes of society, and not outwardly participating in the end of the world. It was basically the Harry Potter to Shin Megami Tensei’s Lord of the Rings. Many of the SMT trappings were still all over the titles, though, and no one was going to mistake Persona for an entirely independent franchise. Then we hit Persona 3, and things started to… mutate.

Persona 3 features demons, monsters, and a particularly homicidal version of Jungian psychology. It is also Day Planner: The Game. Persona 3 has frequently been referred to as “Japanese high school simulator”, but, even more than that, it is a game about balancing your (avatar’s) life. Do you go out tonight (and fight monsters), or do you stay home and study for that test tomorrow? Are you going to spend the afternoon hanging out with your girlfriend, or your best friend? The nerds dance, tooAnd would you like to spend time with the kindly old couple that is obsessed with a tree (?), or is it time to while away the afternoon playing a MMORPG where your homeroom teacher is inexplicably hitting on you? Decisions, decisions! Persona 3 isn’t only about choosing your battle tactics, it’s also about choosing your friends, afternoon plans, and how you combine trading cards into demons that may or may not summon the apocalypse.

Persona 3 wound up becoming a pretty noteworthy hit. While there are a number of potential reasons for the success of the title, one significant factor is likely that you, the all-important player, so fully inhabit the life of this protagonist. In making practically every decision for this “hero” for one year of game life and about seventy hours of real life, it is rather inevitable that an audience would grow overly attached to their individually curated protagonist. And what happens the moment the main character is separated from the player? (Spoilers for a thirteen year old game incoming!) He dies! The protag literally cannot live without you!

The death of Persona 3’s hero is substantial for a number of reasons. The most obvious, of course, is how Persona 3 is all about death. Death, dealing with death, and the broad knowledge that one day you too will die are all general themes that pop up again and again in this title where you can also summon Thor to cast a lightning spell. But beyond that, there is the simple explanation that this is a focused, self-contained story that starts when a strange boy enters a strange city, and ends after that man has made meaningful relationships with people that will live on after his adventure and life have concluded. Persona 3, whether by thematic or simple writing convenience, is meant to be a wholly contained, limited story about the significant, last year of a teenager’s life. Persona 3 is not a story that is meant to go beyond its own borders. Persona 3 is a deliberately claustrophobic tale that is enhanced by its own limits.

And then, naturally, we had Persona 4. And it was a success. So we saw Persona 4 Super. And Persona 4: The Fighting Game. And Persona 4: The Fighting Game Turbo. And Persona 4: The Animation. And Persona 4: The Rhythm Game. By about the time we got to Persona 4: The Rogue-Like, a certain pattern had emerged: the enormously successful Persona 4 was, perhaps from its inception, built to be less a self-contained story, and more a franchise unto itself.

And then Persona 5 finally emerged. Persona 5’s fame may have peaked with this…

It's a whole new game

But we are also talking about a protagonist that practically launched alongside his own canon fursona…

Sonic Heeeeeroes

So it is pretty safe to say that Persona 5 was designed with a slightly different goal than the title that “started” the (most profitable version of the) franchise. Shin Megami Tensei gave way to SMT: Persona that gave way to a series that was simply known as Persona, and now it appears that individual Persona titles are attempting to be franchises unto themselves. Please look forward to Persona 5: The Shoot ‘Em Up.

And here’s Persona 5: The Rhythm Game right next to its simultaneous release of Persona 3: The Rhythm Game.

And, honestly? These twins seem to prove that both titles are equally lacking in meat on their respective bones.

SO BLUELet’s cover the good first: the soundtracks of both Persona 3 and Persona 5 are amazing, and an entire game based on their respective OSTs is incontrovertibly a good thing. Any excuse to listen to some of the iconic tracks from either series is a welcome pretext to press buttons along to the beat, and we’ve got an excellent GUI on our hands here, too. Some rhythm games can get a little confusing with their various “press this now” prompts, but there is no such screen muddling here. And you’re not expected to free-style for extra points, either. The game portion of Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight and Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight is excellent, and a fine way to re-experience one of the best parts of both “origin” titles.

But it couldn’t just be a simple rhythm game. No, the Persona series seems to demand that every spin-off be somehow “canon”, so there is a full introductory scene that explains exactly why the casts of both games now must dance. It’s all a dream! Orchestrated by dueling sisters! There are no consequences for losing! There are no consequences for anything! But we’ll be damned if we let one Persona title pass without a novel’s worth of words that amount to absolutely nothing. It’s not nearly as egregious as Persona 4: Dancing All Night’s story mode (which, reminder, was an entire visual novel’s worth of dialogue and twists and turns that only amounted to “believe in yourself”), but, if you want to play the full game (and why wouldn’t you want the full experience available to you?), you must participate in “social link”-esque dialogues with various party members. Ever wanted to learn exactly what Mitsuru thinks about dancing? No? Well, too bad! It’s the only way to complete this escapade!

But the twin release of dance parties for Persona 3 and Persona 5 conveys a very telling tale: both supporting casts are boring as hell.

VIDEO TIMEOkay, that might be a bit harsh. And, frankly, it even feels wrong. In the case of Persona 3, I finished the title, and immediately wanted to dive back into a New Game+ just to revisit all my old friends at Magical Dungeon High School. Similarly, Persona 5 had an unforgettable cast to the point that its fans could talk for hours about how some characters are violently underserved by their forced interactions with other (likely misogynistic) characters. In both cases, it seems like there’s a reason people would want to see the entire cast pop up again in new spin-off titles… or at least hang around in the background of a Smash stage. I liked Futaba! I could deal with more of her!

But the writing for this rhythm game (that may or may not simply be a way to further capitalize on an unforgettable soundtrack) truly underserves these casts. They are left as simple caricatures of themselves, and certain characters blend together across titles into one indistinguishable blob of archetypes (Ryuji and Junpei are the same guy, apparently). What’s the difference between the cold, calculating, but ultimately caring woman on Persona 3’s team and the cold, calculating, but ultimately caring woman on Persona 5’s team? Ostensibly, not much!

The worst teamAnd this seems significant, as the cast of Persona 3 was only really meant for one (albeit long) adventure, while it is obvious that Persona 5 meant for its Phantom Thieves to go on and steal the show in other franchises and Persona byproducts. Joker is going to stop by Sonic World and the Mushroom Kingdom, but is he any more developed than Jack Frost? Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight seems to indicate that he’s not. He’s just as remarkable as the other cypher that didn’t even survive his maiden adventure.

In the end, the support conversations of P5: Dancing with the Stars and P3: Dancing with the Doomed -the entire plot of both “adventures”- prove one thing: there isn’t much difference between Persona casts. And, considering one gang was meant for bigger and better things, that is rather demoralizing. Persona 5 was built to be the Big Mac to Persona 3’s Dollar Menu cheeseburger, but, once you’ve got your order, it turns out they’re both little more than a chicken nugget.

Just remember this moral when we hit Persona 5: Shin Arena Diving Space Tractor 2 Turbo. The Persona 5 well is already feeling a might dry…

FGC #440 Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight & Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight

  • System: Playstation 4 and… Playstation Vita? Really? Are you… sure?
  • Number of players: I’ll be dancing with myself.
  • Two Games? Let’s face it: the separation of these games into two different versions is a pretty obvious cash-grab. Persona fans are suckers, and pretty much every brand manager involved is well aware that those losers were always going to buy Persona: Dancing Red and Persona: Dancing Blue. And they’ll buy the special edition, too, because it comes with a plushie or something. And that plushie is still sitting on my desk as I type this. Damn fans.
  • The best teamYou’re complaining about the plot of a rhythm game? It’s not about the plot per se, it’s about that someone had the idea to make this a cool “hang out” game featuring both casts… and the “hanging out” seems less fun and more like a job required to earn a new hat. If I’m interpreting having a conversation with Ann as a boring slog now, I can’t imagine what’s going to happen in another seven spin-offs.
  • Favorite Track: Rivers in the Desert is severely underappreciated. Then again, Persona 5 has an amazing soundtrack all on its own, so there is some steep competition.
  • Sexual Dimorphism is a Scourge: Most of the songs are accompanied by random characters bopping around to the rhythm, but two tracks per cast are dedicated music videos featuring either the boys or the girls. In general, one is kind of goofy and silly, and the other is sexy and sultry, complete with costumes and swimsuits. Want to guess which gender gets assigned to sexy times?
  • Did you know? There’s probably a universe where someone decided to model all the social links for dancing, but Dr. Tae Takemi still refuses to get out of her chair.
  • Would I play again: This (these?) title holds up as a great rhythm game, so I’m probably going to revisit some tracks in the near future. Unfortunately, I’m never going to touch the “plot” ever again. I have better things to do. And these Phantom Thieves should, too…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Startropics 2: Zoda’s Revenge! Oh no! Zoda is gonna get his revenge! Please look forward to it!

Yuck
This is just… awkward.

FGC #438 Fire Emblem Awakening

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

Smash it!

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

I see a pattern

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

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

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

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

Casual Mode is my new God

Going into Fire Emblem, I knew exactly three things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire Emblem Awakening is Surprisingly Zippy

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

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

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

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

And speaking of moseying…

The Grid Ain’t so Bad

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

I have no idea. Huh.

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

And speaking of enjoying myself…

The Plot is Actually Enjoyable (And Anime)

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

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

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

And you know what else is fine?

Class Changes are Always Cool

Look at this:

POWER UP

Damn, that’s cool.

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

FGC #438 Fire Emblem Awakening

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

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

I admit it