Tag Archives: square-enix

FGC #514 Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

LET'S QUESTToday we’re going to talk about videogames and how you engage with videogames. Actually, screw that, we’re going to talk about how I engage with videogames.

This odyssey into madness was prompted by Random ROB choosing Dragon Quest 9: Sentinels of the Starry Skies. You may recall that ROB is now picking games from a truncated version of my master inventory of videogames, so, ultimately, DQ9 was no accident. Today’s game was always going to be picked eventually, as it is fondly remembered as one of my favorite games. In fact, I could toss out a few basic, personal facts about DQ9 immediately:

  1. It is one of my most favorite videogames
  2. It is absolutely my most favorite DS game, which is significant, as this is the system that hosted Flammole the Moleroid
  3. It is absolutely my most favorite Dragon Quest game, and the title that got me to enjoy the franchise after years of issues.
  4. I played Dragon Quest 9 for 197 hours, apparently. Given my general ADD and the wealth of alternative games I have available at any given moment, this is significant.
    That's a lot of time
  5. I never want to play Dragon Quest 9 ever again.

Considering the hours involved, that last point seems… peculiar.

To be clear, this is not a matter of burnout. For an easy example of that, consider Secret of Mana, a game that I played and replayed approximately every other day back in 1994. That was a game that, after I was wholly “done” with the experience (likely because Chrono Trigger was finally obtained), I was in no rush to repeat all over again. I had beaten the Mana Beast so many times with so many different sword techniques that I felt I was good and done with the title. But did I ever play the game again? Of course! Secret of Mana doesn’t hog my entertainment center as often as Mega Man 3 (which sees a replay at least annually), but I’ve undoubtedly returned to Randi a few times over the years. I may have “played out” Secret of Mana in its heyday, but I still feel like lapping up that nostalgia from time to time.

Dragon Quest 9? Not so much. That’s my original save file up there, and, short of a battery disaster, it’s never going anywhere. And why? Because even if I wipe that file, I’m never going to be able to play Dragon Quest 9 ever again.

BOOMIn a way, Dragon Quest 9 is a traditional Dragon Quest game from toe to tip. The basic plot, that you are a guardian angel that is torn from Heaven when a fallen angel decides to go all Morning Star on his celestial home, is little more than a framing excuse for venturing across the planet. There’s an evil empire to quash and apocalyptic demons to slay, but that’s all secondary to whatever you can do to help the next town over. They have a disease raging through their populace? Great, maybe you can kill it with a sword (and you can!). Dragon Quest 9 is a game about heroes tromping across the land, making the land slightly better, buying all of the medical herbs until the land has a shortage, and then saving the land from some manner of jerk that probably has a secret form or two. Start out saving a local inn business, finish up by rescuing God. Tale as old as time.

And, frankly, the most overt change to the Dragon Quest 9 formula here is simply a cosmetic upgrade of the good old days of the franchise, too. After years of well-defined protagonists and their distinct, sometimes dog-riding companions, DQ9 returned to the “generic” party of Dragon Quest/Warrior 3. You can create your own custom hero, and then choose three companions with their own distinct complexions and professions. Want a balanced party of the typical Knight, Monk, White Mage, and Black Mage? That’s fine! Want a party that is four re-headed thieves all named “Mona” for some reason? That’s also fine! Do what you want! There are plenty of memorable characters hanging around the fringes of DQ9, so you can create your own, wholly-silent party at your leisure. And speaking of customization, much of the equipment system and its attendant alchemy system in DQ9 seems tailor fit to encourage the player to experiment and adapt their party in new and exciting ways. Sure, you could make a beeline for all that metal slime armor, but wouldn’t it be more fun to have a character or two in a surprisingly resistant bikini? Or a celestial robe? Or just wholesale steal Alena’s outfit? There are options upon options here, and you could spend an entire day gathering the right materials (“ingredients”) to build the perfect superstar’s suit for your luminary. Assembling the perfect party, in more ways than just maxing out stats, is half the fun of DQ9, and it’s the kind of fun you don’t always see in a game where you’re ostensibly trying to “role play”.

CRAFTING!And, while these “new” features certainly account for why I played DQ9 for a “normal” number of hours, it was DQ9’s other big innovation that accounts for not only the excess hours spent playing, but also why I can never play the game again.

God help me, I loved the social aspects of Dragon Quest 9.

Looking at Dragon Quest 9 from a strictly pragmatic perspective, it was clearly a trial run for the MMORPG that was the eventual Dragon Quest 10. DQ9 eschews the typical DQ experience by allowing other players to join your party as you cooperate and quest across the land. Thus, DQ9 was designed first and foremost as a traditional JRPG, but allowed for a significant amount of wiggle room to squeeze in a guest participant or two. Or, put another way, you didn’t need a raid party to conquer that impossible boss, but it sure would be easier if your level 100 buddy stopped by. And there were more passive concessions made to the concept of making DQ massively multiplayer, too. There were quests that were released on a timed basis (causing players that had “finished” the game to return), timed online shop sales (a great reason to log in routinely), and spot-pass shared treasure maps that allowed you to share randomly generated dungeons with friends… or anyone that happened to be within wi-fi range. Since not all maps were created equal, the most massive multi-playing involved in DQ9 wound up being map swapping with as many people as possible. And regardless of whether or not map swaps were meant to be the most popular DQ9 pastime, these were all baby steps to seeing what people would want (and what the franchise could support) in DQ10. But if you were some manner of DQ purist, you could technically ignore all these add-ons and still have an enjoyable experience.

I did not ignore those MMORPG-lite features. Lacking friends that were interested in Dragon Quest (Smash Bros? Yes. 100 hour JRPGs for handhelds? No.), I drove an hour away to visit a Best Buy promotion where I was told there would be other nerds sharing maps. I got maps. I got stickers. I was a happy Goggle Bob.

Tag!

And it would be impossible to replicate that experience.

I’m not going to claim I’ve never done anything vaguely ridiculous for a videogame. I’m not even going to claim that “driving an hour for a virtual trinket” is really all that crazy. But for me, it was a singular experience. It was something none of my friends were doing, so I was forced to make a solitary trip in search of some cave full metal slimes. It was the logical endpoint of logging into DQ9 every day for sales, and checking frequently to see if a fun sidequest had become available yet. It was a time when I downloaded material maps off Gamefaqs message boards, and skulked around forums looking for alchemy recipes. There was this whole “meta game” that was a significant chunk of my life for approximately six months wherein I absorbed as much Dragon Quest 9 information from as many sources as possible. From that perspective, spending a day driving to a silly Nintendo promotion seems almost… necessary. Be glad I didn’t fly to another country or join a gang or something, Mom!

Not you againBut, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone that understands the passage of time, any kind of Dragon Quest 9 fervor eventually burned out to a mere handful of embers. All the quests were released, network services were discontinued, and, in a few short years, the idea of someone using a Nintendo DS to spotpass became as esoteric as someone using AOL to change their away message. The meat of Dragon Quest 9, the main quest and its many tangential vignettes, is always going to be there and available, but those early, tentative steps into the world of hybrid online/local multiplayer are gone forever. Sure, you can finagle a wireless modem into broadcasting the old DQ network for fun and profit, but it’s not the same. You’re never going to randomly obtain a treasure map by walking around the mall ever again (and not just because the mall closed, too). There’s never going to be another Dragon Quest 9 event at Best Buy.

So, after devoting nearly 200 hours to a videogame, I never want to play it again. Why? Because I can’t. What’s real and true and memorable about that game is gone forever, and it isn’t coming back. May as well save that file full of foreign treasure maps for future generations, and move on to something else.

Dragon Quest 9, you were an exceptional and singular Nintendo DS experience. Rest in peace, and be a beautiful, blue ghost creature forever haunting your graveyard.

FGC #514 Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies

  • System: Nintendo DS. One would suppose a modern remake could rectify these issues, but then I wouldn’t be replaying the exact same game, now would I? Dragon Quest of Theseus.
  • Number of players: A whole cosmos of people… but I think only four at a time.
  • It's an innnyHey, some of these screen shots are clearly from a new playthrough: Well, yes, I did give it a try for this article. I preserved my precious save file on its cart, and attempted an emulated run of DQ9, but it only proved my hypothesis: you can’t go home again. And maybe you can’t play DQ9 after DQ11, either.
  • Speaking of Maps: The whole map system leading to unlimited, random dungeons after a game full of carefully created caves is an amazing swerve that obviously accounted for a significant amount of my playtime. That said, I was downright surprised to boot up my old cartridge and find there were a number of maps I never completed.

    Kind of redundant

    I’m sure it was just because I was too busy farming every other map in the game, but those Copper Ruins of Ruin are calling to me…

  • If you liked the MMORPG-lite features in DQ9, why don’t you play more MMORPGs? Every once in a great while, I downright enjoy getting drunk with my friends. However, that does not mean I want to become a heroin addict. I know my limits and addictions.
  • Explain your OG party member names: Robyn is my usual “female” nom de guerre, and appears often in other games. Rydia the green-haired mage requires absolutely no explanation. Felicia was initially a thief class, so she was named after a familiar Spider-Man character. And Misfit was a redhead named for another comic book character, this time a star from Gail Simone’s then-current run of Birds of Prey. I’m not certain if Misfit is still bungling around the DC Universe at this point, but someone should at least give her a try at appearing in one of the CW shows. She’d fit right in!
  • Choo chooFavorite Class: I had to work the hardest for Luminary, so that’s going to win. Also, in a game that somehow enticed me into caring about JRPG fashion, I’m always going to choose the most fashionable class.
  • Retro Challenge: There are a number of maps that feature the final bosses from previous Dragon Quest adventures. Considering I don’t think I had finished a single Dragon Quest game before DQ9’s release (does Rocket Slime count?), all of these bosses were new to me, and generally about as “nostalgic” as any other random monster. And that’s cool! It wound up encouraging me to play previous DQ titles, and now I can identify a Dhoulmagus from fifty paces.
  • Getting Around: The best airship available is a choo-choo. That is the best.
  • Did you know? As of this writing, DQ9 is the only mainline title to not see a revision/upgrade version of some kind. This is a crime.
  • Would I play again: …. Seriously?

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Castlevania: Rondo of Blood! That’s the good one! Yay! Please look forward to it!

Achoo

FGC #508 Chocobo Racing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we’ll always have Chocobo Racing.

FGC #508 Chocobo Racing

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

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

Kingdom Hearts FAQ #15: Re Mind and DLC

So Kingdom Hearts 3: Re⏀Mind is DLC that is now available. What’s KH’s first DLC like?

I refuse to answer a question that comes from an incorrect premise.

Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Goggle Bob?

In a way, Kingdom Hearts has never not had DLC. The original Kingdom Hearts (1) had three different versions before we ever saw a sequel. It started with OG Japanese Kingdom Hearts, and then graduated to Kingdom Hearts: USA Version. Yes, in the original version of Kingdom Hearts, there was no Sephiroth, no sequel-teasing special movie, and a distinct lack of Kurt Zisa (don’t ask). This inevitably led to Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix, a Japanese version of the game that included all of the American content, a handful of new enemies/challenges, a smattering of mute cutscenes, and, most importantly, a secret boss and secret reports that more distinctly alluded to plot points of Kingdom Hearts 2, then still three years away from release. Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix even set the standard of sticking the next game’s final boss in a nondescript coat, and turning him (inevitably “him”) into a super difficult, super confusing battle. Yes! It was “DLC” that established KH’s love of zippered coats!

Wow! DLC in the bygone year of 2002? Wasn’t that pretty great?

Slice 'n DiceHell no. Unfortunately, this was the bad ol’ days of “full game ‘DLC’” releases (see also: Devil May Cry 3). If you wanted to see any of the new content (or, at least, any of the content that was actually worthwhile), you had to replay the game from scratch again, because every new version was technically a whole new game. It didn’t matter if you had a Level 100 Sora in Kingdom Hearts, you needed to grind all over again in Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix. No way you’re going to conquer that “bonus content” otherwise…

So you’re saying no one responsible for the Persona series’ last three entries ever suffered through Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix?

Yep. More’s the pity.

But at least you got more Kingdom Hearts content!

Well, not so much, either. Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix was initially never released outside Japan, so if you wanted that “Kingdom Hearts DLC”, say, because you were a bored college student sinking fast in the merit-based quagmire of the American educational system and you required Kingdom Hearts to bring your life meaning, you were pretty much out of luck unless you wanted to learn Japanese and pay exorbitant import fees.

Well, at least that only happened to Kingdom Hearts 1… Right?

Nope! Kingdom Hearts 2 had a similar trajectory. In fact, Kingdom Hearts 2: Final Mix had an even more alluring collection of “DLC”: it featured an all-new dungeon, rematches against the significant bosses of KH2, the prerequisite mysterious bonus boss battle, and all-new 3-D models of all the Organization XIII baddies that died alone and 2-D in the previous GBA game (Chain of Memories), so you could fight them “for real” in the Kingdom Hearts 2 engine. Oh, and the game included a full 3-D remake of that GBA game, too.

Wow! That is a lot of content!

Yep! And it didn’t make it across the Pacific, either. We did eventually get that GBA-PS2 remake on the PS2, though… but only as its own, separate budget release. No Kingdom Hearts 2 Lingering Will super battle for American folks.

Boo! Boo I say!

Stupid WhaleBoo indeed! And this continued to be the new normal for the franchise. Birth by Sleep (the PSP one) Final Mix featured upgrades like a battle against Pinochio’s Monstro, Coded got Re:Coded, and, in the end, it seems that poor Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days was the only Kingdom Hearts title to not see any gameplay changes after its initial release. … And that is the case only because it was repurposed as exclusively cinema scenes for the inevitable HD release. I shudder to think how many secret boss battles could have been squeezed in there if someone decided to properly convert the DS game.

So did America ever see any of this “DLC”?

Not for a very long time. But we did eventually see all of this content with the 1.5/2.5 HD remasters that were released in 2013/2014. Now, as of 2017, you can play all of this bonus content on your Playstation 4 as part of the Kingdom Hearts Complete compilation. So it only took an extra console generation, a whole new title, and XIII years for America to see Kingdom Hearts DLC. Seems about right!

So you’re saying we should consider ourselves lucky that this DLC is a worldwide release and only $30?

Yes. Please bring Nomura gilded zippers as an offering of goodwill.

So how does Kingdom Hearts 3: Re¤Mind shake out?

KISS!Your mileage may vary, but, as these things go, this seems to be pretty beefy DLC. First of all, there’s the signature “Final Mix” difficulty mode, this time allowing for some interesting challenges or lack of challenges. You can make the game more difficult by adding conditions like a HP drain, or make the game easier with one-hit kills for your opponents. It’s like a built-in Game Genie! There’s also a boss rush of some significant opponents, and the requisite secret boss du jour. And there’s an expansion to the “photo mode” of the original game, with the ability to set up dioramas so you can see what it would look like if Riku and Sora kissed in new and interesting worlds. We’ve also got additional keyblades, Oathkeeper and Oblivion, that were conspicuously absent during the initial release, and some additional battle options that manage to change the entire feeling of Sora’s combat. … Actually, I think those items are free as part of the DLC’s update, but it’s really hard to keep track of what is what. I know for certain that the new plot elements are part of the DLC, though!

A new plot?

Well, “new” is kind of a misnomer here. On one hand, for the first time in a Kingdom Hearts “Final Mix” situation, there is a significant amount of entirely new voice acting, new cinema scenes, and wholly new scenarios (you get to play as new characters!), on the other hand, almost all of this content is in some way “recycled” from the main game. Most of what you’ll find in ReØMind is either something that was already in KH3 but now seen from a different perspective, or a battle repurposed from its original context. The first bit of gameplay in KH3: RM is a struggle against what was previously the only wholly optional heartless in KH3, and that seems to be stating an opening mission statement of repurposing many of KH3’s “scraps” into complete meals.

So it’s just warmed up leftovers?

Yes, Kingdom Hearts 3: Re⍟Mind is leftovers. But they’re super delicious leftovers. This is some prime rib going in your lasagna leftover repurposing.

Is… is that something you actually eat?

With gusto.

So do the new plot details at least offer something new for fans?

Nope!

What the hell!?

I know, right? Kingdom Hearts 3 ended on a very confusing finale. Here’s where the spoilers for the franchise start in earnest…

FGC #439 Trials of Mana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FGC #439 Trials of Mana

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

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

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

RUN AWAY