Tag Archives: skeleton dance

FGC #650 Haunting Starring Polterguy

Here comes the ghostIt is amazing how “eat the rich” can feel so right.

Today’s game is the marginally forgotten Sega Genesis title, Haunting Starring Polterguy. This was an Electronic Arts jaunt from 1993, and won a bit of acclaim at its release for being a very different kind of game. At a time when the consoles were dominated by furry platformers with attitude, Haunting Starring Polterguy was a distinctly humorous game with peculiar gameplay. You are a ghost, and it is your job to scare four different people by possessing a variety of objects that have been conveniently preprogrammed for potential scares. HsP definitely contains some annoying, contemporary “action game” conventions (there is a “Hell” level that is all dodging and jumping, and a completely unsuitable final boss), but, by and large, it is a unique experience that is still rare to this very day. We had… What? Geist? And that was mostly about being a first-person shooter in different forms? Haunting Starring Polterguy is one of the only titles to utilize such a universal concept in decades of gaming history despite the fact that playing as a spooky ghost trying to scare hapless humans is instantly recognizable. We have an entire holiday based on it! Two, if you include the works of Dickens!

And you know what else is another universal concept? Eat the rich. (Also a popular topic for Dickens.)

You are not a generic ghost in Haunting Starring Polterguy. You are, of course, the titular Polterguy. And Polterguy was not some born-dead apparition (eat it, Slimer), he was once a normal, living punk teenager who died thanks to a defective skateboard. And, since he blames this most bogus of deaths on the manufacturers of the board, he is going to haunt CEO Vito Sardini and his family until they run screaming from their home. And in much the same way that Polterguy is a very defined character (for a 90’s 16-bit title) the Sardinis are not just generic people in a house waiting for a spook ‘em up. The Sardinis are… Well, let’s look at Flo’s in-game biography…

Not an aunt

And if that was a little too subtle, how about we see what there is to say about her dear daughter…

Could one day be an aunt

The Sardinis are portrayed as three key things: vicious, selfish, and rich. And it is worth examining why those first two traits so quickly intersect with the third.

First of all, Haunting Starring Polterguy is a “children’s game” that does something far more brave than Grand Theft Auto: it involves children. Aside from fairly generic ghouls that seem to represent the basic concept of death, the four Sardinis are the only opponents Polterguy will ever face. And two of those Sardinis are kids! And, considering you are literally scaring them into homelessness, HsP does go out of its way to make prepubescent children creatures worthy of being tossed out on the street for their crimes. Tony and Mimi are presented as horrible little monsters in their own right, and, complete with unusual mentions of their love of various poisons, the basic concept here seems to be that the world would be better off without the Sardini family. Polterguy is a polter-guy while these rapscallions still live! That doesn’t seem right!

The garage is scaryBut why are Sardini children terrible? Well, obviously because they are rich. Papa Vito Sardini is just south of straight up being Mr. Monopoly as the very picture of capitalism with his suit and giant cigar, and Flo Sardini is the housewife that is assumed to be lambasting a cleaning staff just off screen. They are loaded, and their gigantic homes filled with wild excesses are monuments to their fortune. Hell, the warp from level 2 to level 3 is hidden in the “jacuzzi room”! There is no question that the Sardinis have grossly profited off suffering, and Polterguy is a not-living reminder that their money has been earned through causing literal death to others.

And it is amazing that I intrinsically understood this as a child.

I was roughly Tony Sardini’s age when Haunting Starring Polterguy was released. While I know I didn’t pick this one up on release day, I am estimating that my childhood memory of renting this game did occur when it was contemporary. And I will formally note that I do not consider myself to have been a smart child. Or teenager. Or young adult. Or… whatever I am right now. Adult? That doesn’t sound right… Regardless! I was not a gamer that ever picked up on subtext until roughly the release of Final Fantasy 13, so, back in the Final Fantasy 4 days, I was hopelessly drowning in a quagmire of the literal. But, luckily, there is nothing remotely subtle about the Sardinis. They are mean. They are rich. They are the enemy, and, should Polterguy fail in his mission to teach them a lesson, they will inevitably hurt more people. They are the bourgeois, and they must be stopped.

It's so hotAnd I got that. I understood that the rich were the enemy of a young, hip, teenager (who may or may not be alive). I was never cool/coordinated enough to be a skateboard champ, but I wanted to be a radical shredder. These “rich kids”? They were just as selfish and mean as the bullies at my school. And were the real bullies wealthy and privileged? Of course they were! One of my greatest enemies in primary school was the grandson of a superintendent. Kid was untouchable! I would have haunted his house in a second. And even as a dumb ten-year-old, I knew the reason he could get away with damn near anything was that his parents/grandparents were high enough on the food chain that none of my beloved teachers would ever so much as shoot an ornery glance in his direction. He was untouchable! And it was because of unearned wealth and power!

And, end of the day, when this is something that could be understood by a foolish child, it really raises the question of why “being rich” is something that is supposed to be aspirational.

We see it over and over again, right? We are told that “rich guy” is the smartest guy around, he has been so successful in everything, and then he’s put in a position where we can actively see the decisions he is making and the thoughts he is having, and it is clear we’re dealing with a charlatan. But then how was he so successful? Well, it is pretty easy to identify when someone has inherited billions of dollars, and how that could maybe purchase a few accolades and an entire public relations firm. And whether these braindead Scary Dancerbillionaires are aspiring to politics or simply owning a social media company, we do not need a Citizen Kane to be reminded that they are little more than monsters themselves. A wise writer once said of being rich, “In terms of cognitive impairment it’s probably like being kicked in the head by a horse every day”. And this fact is proven to us over and over again, generation through generation! It’s in our literature and parables going back centuries! We know it in our genetic code at this point that the rich would eat us all if given the tiniest opportunity!

So bite back.

Haunt that couch, Polterguy. When the revolution comes, you will be on the right side.

FGC #650 Haunting Starring Polterguy

  • System: Sega Genesis was technically the only place you could find Polterguy. However, there was an Electronic Arts collection released for the PSP. So EA Replay contains the most recent release of Polterguy… and that was 2006. Good luck finding this dead man now!
  • Scary SexyNumber of players: This is very much a single player game, but, inexplicably, there is a two-player mode. It is mostly an alternating adventure (player one haunts, dies, and then it is player two’s turn), but both players go head-to-head to race out of Hell and see who gets the next turn first. It is a shame that the simultaneous bits only occur in the dreary dungeon, as tandem haunting of the house might be fun. You could scare Sardinis into each other!
  • Optimum Run: And speaking of going to Hell: I literally cannot figure out if this game is meant to be… what’s the word that fits here… played without failure? Like… are you supposed to die? Or re-die? What I mean to say is that your health bar drains very quickly, and, considering “death” just means playing a different kind of level, it is difficult to determine whether “dying” is something that is supposed to happen routinely, or if there is some optimum way to scare everyone and always keep your health topped off. It certainly seems like the scares do not drop enough ectoplasm to keep Polterguy healthy, but maybe if you run all over the house and scare everyone in succession…
  • Cheat ‘em Up: Possibly as a concession to the above issue, there are level warps hidden in every stage. There is practically no way you would find these shortcuts on your own (less “run on top of some blocks to find the secret pipes” and more “haunt the garbage can in one specific room and press B C B B”), but they are quick and easy if you want to “continue” to a new stage. Or… just skip 75% of the game. That’s good, too.
  • Favorite Haunt: One of the doorways is enchanted to summon a skeleton cowboy with pistol blazing. Why is this doorway undead Western themed? Who knows!
  • Ride 'em cowboyAn End: The finale reveals that the family dog was some kind of malevolent force all along. Whether this entity is the reason the starring family is also malevolent is never explored, but you do have to fight the dog monster in a boss fight for which this gameplay system is woefully underequipped. But if you win, Polterguy is restored to life! And then he immediately dies again! Because that is funny! I guess!
  • Did you know? One of the most risqué haunts involves possessing a bath towel in the bathroom, and materializing a seemingly naked woman behind the towel. But when she removes the towel, it reveals she is a touch on the skinless side, and someone is going to be more than a little frightened by the Hellraiser lady walking around. Now that is something Nintendon’t do over on the Super Nintendo.
  • Would I play again: Maybe? This one is a fun curiosity, and really does have unique gameplay for the era. That said, Polterguy is not great at haunting my memory, and I am unlikely to pick it back up if it does not ever appear on a compilation again. So…. Fingers crossed for a Sega Genesis Mini III.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Goat Simulator 3! Let’s watch a goat do all sorts of things. I guarantee it will be spicy! Please look forward to it!

That's all, ghouls

FGC #646 Killer Instinct (2013)

RevolutionaryYou ever revolutionize a genre, and everybody forgets you did it?

The history of fighting games is long and complicated, but there are some milestones that may be used to keep things simple. Many people recognize Street Fighter 2 as the official start of the fighting game craze. However, by the time Street Fighter 3: Third Strike rolled around, the humble fighting genre (and its home, the arcade) was all but dead. For a time, all we had was Aksys and random crossovers to keep the embers burning, but Street Fighter 4 returned to revitalize the genre. Was 2008’s Street Fighter 4 the sole reason 2-D fighting games returned to prominence? No, but it did prove that the quarter munchers could move to the online space, and no more would we be forced to subsist exclusively on weird Mortal Kombat kart racers. Street Fighter 4 is arguably one of the least experimental Street Fighter titles in Capcom’s stable, but it was what the desert needed after an eleven-year draught.

And if you want the innovation that would define the fighting game genre for years to come, you need to look at Killer Instinct.

Everything has a season

This wolfPopular knowledge says the original Killer Instinct was little more than a Mortal Kombat clone (klone?). It was a naked attempt by Rare and Nintendo to capitalize on the violent fighting game craze without sullying Mario’s lilywhite gloves. And, when Killer Instinct returned years later to showcase the Xbox One, it seemed to be filling much the same space. While the Xbox 360 and its Xbox Live had defined online gaming for a console generation, the Xbox One needed a new Halo to dominate a different genre. Killer Instinct was to be a killer app!

Except… it kind of looked like Double Helix didn’t believe in its own hype.

A fighting game lives and dies by its roster. Some games are legendary thanks to their fighters, and many fail because they cannot support a single memorable pugilist. Killer Instinct launched with… the cast of Killer Instinct. But without the good ones! Riptor the fighting dinosaur was nowhere to be seen, nor was the dual-headed dueler, Eyedol. Seemingly all traces of Killer Instinct 2/Gold were gone (our dear werewolf lost his cybernetic appendages! And he’s supposed to be a cyberwolf!), and we had a measly one fresh fighter to showcase a new generation. Oh, and thanks to this anemic roster, marquee robot Fulgore was positioned as the big bad, and Jago was supposed to be our Ryu (complete with “Evil” version as a super boss). And Jago… geez… You can’t spell “generic” without “Jago” (this is probably true in some language). Killer Instinct’s launch was positioned to properly piss off fans old and new. The newbies wondered why the best this game could give us is a basic Native American lightning guy (named Thunder!) in the year of our Lord 2013, and any veterans were left wondering when the hell we would finally get to play as the gargoyle or fire guy.

But there would be an answer: next season.

Killer Instinct wound up with three distinct seasons. Each season brought us an equal number of new characters, ultimately more than tripling the final roster of Killer Instinct. In time, all the old fighters would return. In time, we would be granted new, innovative characters. In time, we would see Thunder’s brother, Fulgore’s prototype, and bosses new and old. Season 2 and Season 3 were always just on the horizon, and eternally sending a clear message to the playerbase: this gets better. Play now, get good, and you’ll be ready when Gargos finally flies onto the stage.

There is more on the way. Get hype.

And speaking of hype…

Every character can be an event

Rip and tearLet’s revisit Riptor.

I don’t mind saying that that dang dinosaur was my favorite lady in any original Killer Instinct. She seemed to adapt well to my playstyle (which is likely best described as “Impatient Guile”), and when she was not available for Killer Instinct (2013), I was heartbroken. Was dinosaur technology too expensive in this modern age? Was Jurassic Park not the draw it was back in the 90’s? Did the design staff decide they didn’t want to wade into the feathers versus scales debate? Whatever the case, Riptor was gone, and there was no way of knowing if she was ever coming back.

And then, as part of Season 2, we received the Riptor trailer. It was an in-world advertisement for Ultra Tech’s latest cybernetic dinosaur technology, and positioned as a rival to the robotic Fulgore line. Machine-gun ‘bots can’t go everywhere, so here’s your own private raptor! The video seemed to delight in noting that this was not a historically accurate dinosaur, but a creature created by modern science to be something unique. She has a robot tail! What more could you ask for!?

Get Excited for this new dinosaur fighter! Coming December 17! And maybe there is a teaser for the next, wholly new character at the end there! Coming January 30!

And this “hype cycle” became the norm for Killer Instinct throughout its four years of support. If there was a new season on the horizon, you knew one of the big boys was coming back… and who could it be!? Tune in to the next announcement and find out! And when the character is released, enjoy playing Killer Instinct all over again! It is not just about a new one-player campaign, it is about that online community waking back up, and getting back into the groove, because everybody wants to see how the new car handles (or how to best punch said new car).

Give it a trailer and a proper hype cycle, and you could even care about a rash.

And since we’re getting a rash anyway…

Get hyped for guests

Get wreckedCrossovers are nothing new. Ever since Akuma invaded X-Men: Children of the Atom, seeing a guest fighter on the roster has been old hat. Mind you, the likes of Gon or Freddy have always been fun, but they always felt more like an afterthought than anything else. Link is fighting for the Soulcalibur? Well, that’s cool, but we are here for Nightmare, not the elf.

What made Killer Instinct’s guests any different? Simple: it’s all about timing.

Killer Instinct’s first two guest characters, Arbiter of Halo and Rash of Battletoads, were released at the start of Season 3. And that made all the difference, as crossover characters had previously been either part of a game from the start (in the days before DLC), or were the absolute final, “whatever works” additions of the end of a game’s lifecycle. Sticking the Sangheili and the amphibian there at the top of the season meant that the rest of the season was wide open for speculation. And rumors were abound! With two absurd choices establishing that anything was possible, a renewed interest in Killer Instinct was fueled by the possibility of seeing anyone from Solar Jetman to Banjo Kazooie to James Bond. And while we only ever saw a worthy follow-up in Gears of War’s General RAAM, the possibilities certainly did the job of putting Killer Instinct back on the map. And you could draw a pretty obvious line from Rash to the eventual bonus characters of Thunder’s brother and “that lady from the Ring, but she moves faster”. You could argue these guest characters were generic compared to a straight up “here’s Kazuya”, but even when you don’t have the likes of Sora or Sephiroth, you can generate practically infinite excitement.

But focusing exclusively on the roster isn’t the only thing that makes Killer Instinct great, the single player content also includes…

Train the player

It's nice hereKiller Instinct was initially released with a “freemium” version. Said version was 100% free, though included only one playable character. In a way, this makes it little more than a demo, and an easy way to see if Killer Instinct is right for you. But Killer Instinct: Free did include one very important mode that made all the difference: Dojo Mode.

Dojo Mode was like your traditional training mode of the time, but so much more. Yes, you could practice special moves and combos, but it also included lessons that would teach a player exactly how to use their selected character. What’s more, it allowed the player to toggle hit/hurtboxes, finally illustrating oblique terms that had previously only been the domain of fighting game aficionados. Killer Instinct was an in-depth game, as it included everything from instinct cancels to combo breakers, but this training mode took the time to break down absolutely everything, including items like spacing and meter management that could be applied to any fighting game. Killer Instinct wants you to “get gud”, and it does a lot more to get you there than whip your ass in a survival mode.

But even that likely pales behind…

Reward the player

The wind upAt its core, Killer Instinct is a basic fighting game, and fighting games have always been all about “rewards” in single player content. The Street Fighter franchise was always fond of claiming that unique endings were the greatest incentive anyone could ever imagine, and the Mortal Kombat franchise turned unlocking the roster into a quest onto itself. Killer Instinct Gold, Killer Instinct’s previously most prominent console release, seemed to primarily rely on codes for its unlocks, but special golden characters could only be acquired with skill and perseverance.

And now in Killer Instinct (2013)? The most perseverance you need is selecting a character.

By the time Killer Instinct: Definitive Edition rolled around, there were nearly an even 30 fighters available. And everyone came complete with three single-player achievements. You could earn a trophy for simple, everyday tasks like winning a match, winning a match (but in survival mode), and reaching character level three. Oh, what’s this about character levels? Every individual selectable character earns experience points every time you play as them, and, win or lose, you will accrue exp for your pugilists. And don’t even get me started on the rewards that are available once you wade into the world of online ranking…

And, while the “service” end of this has now ended, please remember a recent present where the simple matter of booting up Killer Instinct once a week could yield new and exciting incentives. Maybe there would be a new character available that was free-to-play for a limited time. Maybe your “main” was able to earn bonus experience this week, so ripping into Riptor would be the best use of your Tuesday. Maybe there was a special extra for the friggen’ roguelike that somehow became part of Killer Instinct Season 3. Even if you weren’t stopping back in Killer Instinct every month for a new character, KI went out of its way to find reasons to train a player into logging in at least once a week to haul in the extra loot available.

Stay backAnd, like all the items on this list, Killer Instinct did not invent rewarding the player, it simply made it a focus for the game. So, like its training modes, seasons, and hype cycles, it became just as important to Killer Instinct as the fireball motion was to Street Fighter 2. You cannot have Ryu without a dragon punch, and you will never see Eyedol again without a trailer and bonus achievements.

And as for whether or not this all made an impact on the fighting game ecosystem? Well, just go ahead and mail me a letter from the future, and confirm when Street Fighter 6 inevitably has literally everything mentioned across this article…

FGC #646 Killer Instinct (2013)

  • System: Initially it was the killer app exclusive to the Xbox One. Then it migrated over to Microsoft Windows about three years later.
  • Number of players: Two whole people, fighting each other from anywhere on the world wide web.
  • Just play the gig, man: The music in Killer Instinct is not only distinctly pretty damn good, it is also integrated into the gameplay to an absurd degree. Moving a cursor around the pause menu plays tones matching the current theme! And Ultra Combo incorporation! It is difficult to describe in words, but this is one feature that I would like to see integrated in every future fighting game… even if it would then add an extra six months to development…
  • Love those chucksStory Time: For a fighting game franchise, Killer Instinct’s mythos are surprisingly coherent. Mind you, this is likely because the franchise does not have to accommodate twenty years and two reboots like some franchises, but this is a pretty straightforward story of swords and sorcery demons being unearthed by a contemporary, uncaring conglomerate. And, hey, the UltraTech company is unabashedly as evil as an immortal gargoyle demon. We need more games with easy-to-understand morals like that.
  • Single Player: This is one of the few fighting games where I feel I do not need an “arcade mode”, and am happy just stopping into Vs. CPU mode with random select. I literally cannot tell you why this is the case, but firing up a random match in Killer Instinct feels a lot more natural than in Guilty Gear or Street Fighter. Maybe I am just a sucker for experience points…
  • Favorite Character: My allegiance to Riptor has already been plainly stated. Glacius was actually part of the original game, so he would be my pick if we have to go with someone that was there from the start. If I have to pick a new character, it is Mira the vampire. Fighting games need more vampires.
  • Did you know? You could easily make the argument that the original Killer Instinct roster was little more than a cross between gaming character clichés (ninja, femme fatale, fire elemental) and generic movie monsters (dinosaur, werewolf, skeleton, alien). So it is appropriate that KI Season 2 introduced characters such as mummy, big statue, GLaDOS, and that girl from the Ring. They’re not derivative! They’re following the template!
  • Would I play again: This is my favorite Xbox fighting game. Mind you, all my other fighting games on my Playstation… but still! Basically, if my Xbox X is on at all, there are really good odds this will get played for at least as long as it takes to download my latest game’s updates. I assure you, this is high praise.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Final Fantasy 10! Oh boy! I bet it will be a laugh riot! Please look forward to it!

A bit gusty?

FGC #643 Elden Ring

I never did get that ringI appreciate Elden Ring, because, more than any game I have ever played, it perfectly encapsulates how it feels to be a tourist.

Elden Ring is a FromSoftware title. FromSoftware struck gold a little over a decade ago with Dark Souls, and has had incredible success with that franchise and “soulsborne” titles like Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. And, while many have tried to pin down exactly what makes these games so popular (if only to clone that je ne sais quoi so they can make their own piles of money), it seems that several people have settled on one reason these games are great: it is the challenge. Soulsborne titles are known for their unforgiving difficulty, brutal bosses, and any number of sink or swim situations that, more often than not, lead to a ubiquitous “you have died” message. But hope is not lost! These FromSoft games are built around the concept that you will fail, and restarting and reclaiming your lost collectibles is as easy as making your way to wherever you happened to expire, and now, shucks, guess you are here anyway, let’s see if we can make a little more progress this time. And, in this simple death-rebirth-progress-repeat loop, accomplishments are made, and eventually you have every last trophy claiming you have become a freaky god-baby or whatever the hell happened at the end of Bloodborne. In short, calling the appeal of FromSoftware titles “the challenge” is reductive of a carefully tailored gameplay cycle that isn’t all that different from the Dragon Warriors of old.

This is gonna hurtBut I have never cared about any of that. Of course I find FromSoftware games challenging! But I also find Mega Man Legends challenging, too. I have been playing videogames for the last thirty years, and, unless we are talking about a genre/playstyle that I know by heart (that would be the original Mega Man franchise, for instance), I am very likely to die over and over again regardless of “challenge”. I probably pick up a game faster than some people, but I have never had any sort of videogame “sight-reading” dexterity. It takes me a while to learn a new game, and it doesn’t matter if we are talking about Bloodborne or Bloodstained. Every new game is memento mori, and I too will die… and quickly! I might even have a leg up on FromSoftware titles at this point, too, as I kind of know the general pacing now of… How do I put this… “That one guy syndrome”? Like there’s always that one guy… He has a horse in this one… There is always that one guy near the start of the game that there is no way you are beating him right now, so you must come back later, and if you try to spend all your time on him at the start, you are going to have a bad time. And that and other tricks only work so many times, so after fearing the old blood and praising the sun a number of times, I am fairly immune to many FromSoftware tricks. In short, these games are challenging, but they never really felt substantially challenging on my end. They are hard, but everything is hard when you game like a pillow cursed with dummy thumbs.

So how do I experience FromSoft games? Why do I even bother? Well, because the greatest FromSoftware games are about exploring, and I love games based on exploring. As if it wasn’t obvious from a Castlevania game being covered on this site every other month, I enjoy seeing scary monsters, skulking around their lairs, and, ideally, finding all sorts of secret places while rolling around murderous skeletons. FromSoft titles offer this kind of experience in enormous quantities, and I am always happy to dodge some giant’s sword only to accidentally discover a treasure hidey-hole. That is the kind of gaming experience I cherish, and it can only be found in painstakingly constructed castles/planets/forgotten lands. I don’t care if it is a Crocomire or giant land octopus involved, just factor in those breakthroughs, and I’m good.

But I have noticed a curious issue with my Soulsborne playthroughs: I never 100% any of these games.

Poor flightless birdsNow, this is something of an interesting issue. Traditionally, if I enjoy a videogame, I try to wring about as much enjoyment out of it as possible. While this does not always lead to a “platinum trophy” style “do everything” event, it does usually mean I have seen what I consider to be “everything”. For instance, I might not need that 100% of the map filled achievement, but I want to feel like I have spoken to every NPC, and completed every relevant questline. I won’t be finishing the Metroid Dread boss rush anytime soon, but I do feel happy with that perfect item collection rating. My definition of “100% Completion” might not match the opinion of everyone else, but it is a level that leaves me content.

Elden Ring? Not so much. I have completed the game, I have filled in the portions of the map I feel are relevant, and I am happy with my experience. Why? Simple: I am delighted being a tourist.

We have all played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild before, right? Remember that dude who would give you inventory upgrades if you traded him gold poops? He was in the Warriors game? Hestu! Hestu upgrades your inventory, and you are meant to collect korok seeds across the world, scamper back to Hestu when you have a healthy amount, and then gradually upgrade your capacity as the game proceeds. Know what I did? I missed Hestu! Big ol’ lug is hanging out on one of the most traveled roads in Hyrule, and I completely avoided the doof. This is supposed to be an area/person you see early in your adventure, but I managed to take a different path, and didn’t find Hestu until after I had slain Ganon. I went the entire game with an extremely limited backpack all because I took one wrong turn at Albuquerque about an hour after Link got out of bed. And the damnedest thing about all that? I expected as much! Give me an open world with very clear directions for a neophyte player to “follow this route”, Slice an antand I guarantee you I will find some way to wander off the beaten trail. This is why the glowing path is my friend, because I know without some invasive guidance, I am going to meander off to somewhere I shouldn’t be.

And many people will tell you this is the point of open world games. Leave the guides behind, Goggle Bob! You are exploring just like you’re supposed to! But my issue is not that I am somehow playing the game wrong, it is that I am missing things that will make my life easier. I wanted Hestu’s inventory upgrades! I wanted the ability to carry around every elemental sword this side of Koholint! And I could have had it, if somehow I knew to head in Hestu’s direction. I did not want to use a FAQ or strategy guide, because I didn’t want everything ruined, but a gentle nudge in the right direction of something that would improve my life would be nice.

Elden Ring does not do gentle nudges. Elden Ring is the kind of game that sticks its opening tutorial in a pit that looks portentously deadly. Elden Ring is the kind of game where a “helpful” NPC sends you to your death just to see if you would listen to her. Elden Ring is the kind of game where people debate online what exactly “the hug lady” does, and whether she is secretly trying to kill you. Elden Ring is an extremely opaque game, and, while “working with the community” is intended to be part of the experience (an experience that identifies a lot of turtles as dogs, incidentally), the sheer scope of the Lands Between means that it is very difficult to so much as figure out exactly where you are, left alone effectively ask another human being for directions. I need to know what to do at the castle the dude on the overpass told me to clear out. No, not the castle with the knight with the dragon arm. The other castle. No, not the one with the sickly nerds and the moon woman. I think that was a university…

But this isn’t a knock against Elden Ring, because I have felt this way before. Elden Ring gives me the exact same feeling as being a tourist.

This doesn't look goodLook, I come from a touristy area. I know my entire local economy and livelihood relies on the fact that, for a few months every year, a bunch of sunburned malcontents roam the streets and coffee shops looking for some kind of summer loving (even if that “loving” only applies to a love of a particular slice of pizza). And, while I am well aware I would be living in a van by the river if these tourists did not exist, having lived in this area all my life has granted me an obvious, absurd complex regarding the concept of “tourists”. Those monsters come here! And eat at our restaurants! And clog up our roads! And use our ocean! It is irrational (again, none of these things would exist in the first place if it weren’t for the tourists [okay, maybe the ocean would still be there]), but it is something ingrained in my psyche.

So the idea of me, tourist hater extraordinaire, enjoying being a tourist should be hypocritical. And it is! But, like the entire republican party, I am not going to let being a hypocrite get me down. I like being somewhere new. I like seeing new places. I feel bad if I am somewhere on an extremely limited, regimented visit. I want to wander the streets! I want to see the rinky-dink little cafes that haven’t had more than three customers in three years. I want to skip the Paris subway, walk back to the hotel, and find whatever this is…

This is France

That ain’t in no guidebook. If I were to ask a thousand people for directions on what to do in Paris, they would never tell me to cut through that random street, and also find nearby cat campaign posters…

This is Cats

I live for that nonsense. I want to vote for a cat in Paris! That is the best part of sightseeing for me: not seeing all the wonders of the biggest tourist traps, but experiencing all the surprises that aren’t attached to a gift shop. Disney World is great! But let me walk down International Drive and find the absolutely weirdest buffet known to man. It has spaghetti and burritos next to each other? Spread my ashes over that garbage (it is only a marginal health risk compared to some of the other stuff at the buffet).

And, oddly enough, Elden Ring seems to capture that feeling better than any other game. In many open world games, you are continually looking for similar McGuffins. To once again recall Breath of the Wild, if you are doing damn near anything in that universe, you know you are aiming for a new shrine. And this is great for people that like goals, but the world does feel a little smaller when you know lightning dodging or walrus racing is all going to end in the same reward. In Elden Ring? There are dead ends. There are “rewards” that are little more than “look what you found”. You are trying to become the new Elden Lord! And when you explore this newly found dungeon, you will find… skeletons. Or giant ants. Or some weirdo that wants to turn you into a tree for some reason. And your reward for traipsing through this dungeon? Some lore. A weapon you will never use. Absolutely nothing. There is no guaranteed reward for practically anything you do in Elden Ring. I am pretty sure I even murdered a few bosses that offered the incentive of a pat on a back and nothing more. Elden Ring has its own brutal difficulty, but even more than that, it has a brutal world that often seems to contemptuously ask the player, “Enemy slain? So what? You want a trophy?”

Let's go, horse!Then why keep playing? Because there is joy in exploring. There is happiness in being that tourist who is “just visiting”, but can savor an appealing view. In a game where there are clear and omnipresent goals, everyone has the same experience. In a game where anything can happen, people can have exceptionally different encounters. Families have been visiting “tourist traps” for years, but no two people are guaranteed to have had the same experience. Climb to the top of the pyramids, and you might not enjoy it as much as another person nearby munching on a gyro from the Queen of the Nile food truck. In a world where there are not guides, where there is nothing telling you where you “have to be”, you can be a true wandering tourist. And that can be more fun than any kind of “scripted” experience. I do not need to know the name of the freaky dude riding a tiny horse and summoning meteors any more than I “need” to know the name of the guy who painted that mural I loved. I am a tourist right now, and I can enjoy enjoying without having to know everything.

So you can have your challenge or lore or fingers or whatever it is I’m supposed to like about Elden Ring. I’ll be over here, galloping around with Torrent, and taking in the sights. I might not learn anything you would find in a guide, but I am going to have fun seeing what I can see, and discovering what I can discover. I am going to be a tourist in these Lands Between, and I am going to enjoy that experience.

… And maybe I’ll buy a t-shirt later.

FGC #643 Elden Ring

  • System: I technically own the Playstation 4 disc, but I got a Playstation 5 about five minutes later, so that’s mostly where these screenshots are from. Sorry, it appears this is not going to be on Switch anytime soon.
  • Dodge!Number of players: There are thousands of people posting all over the place and occasionally showing up to murder your avatar, but it is an otherwise solitary experience.
  • Give me an explanation: Okay, there is one bit of lore I would be curious about. Why is everything giant? Or, to be particular, why are so many random animals and vermin the same kind of giant? Giant ants are roughly the same size as giant octopi as giant wolves, and that does not scale correctly at all. Why did everything grow to exactly the same size? Don’t say it was “magic”! Everything is magic!
  • Favorite Boss: Give me that Fire Giant any day of the week. Elden Ring bosses have a tendency to have distinct phases, and Fire Giant winds up with a phase where he tears off his own legs in an effort to better crawl-fight you with his immense stomach-face. That is the kind of dedication to a bit I can only admire.
  • Greatest Regret: The opening mentioned The Loathsome Dung Eater, and apparently I missed that dude entirely. This is a shame, as I find it personally offensive to have any piece of media mention “The Loathsome Dung Eater”, and then not have them prominently featured in every minute of the final product. This is storytelling 101, guys.
  • Say something mean: I enjoyed Elden Ring. It is a good game. That said, why are there jumping puzzles? This is not a world that should utilize jumping for anything other than skipping over ruined castle foundations. There should not be floating islands in space that require precise jumping when my character feels like she weighs 1,200 lbs. And do not get me started on giving the horse a double jump. That is not a traditional trait of horses!
  • OwieDid you know? You can tell you are in a FromSoftware world if you cannot conceive of a character complimenting another character’s butt. Elden Ring? Bloodborne? Dark Souls? Name a single speaking NPC in any of those universes that would look at a badonkadonk and be like “You got a great pooper right there”. You can’t. It is impossible.
  • Would I play again: I might organize another trip to the Lands Between in the future. And, hey, there is bound to be some DLC, too, right? Maybe that would be another good excuse…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Pocky and Rocky Reshrined! The priestess and the raccoon will save the day yet again! With leaves! Please look forward to it!

What is even happening here?

FGC #629 Radical Dreamers (Complete Edition)

So let’s talk about getting into fights.

Today’s game is Radical Dreamers, the quasi-sequel to one of my favorite games of all time, Chrono Trigger. Radical Dreamers is a 2 hour (or so) itty bitty side story to the titanic Chrono Trigger, and was released exclusively on the Japanese SatellaView back in 1996. Unfortunately, despite the global success of Chrono Trigger (arguably right up there with Final Fantasy 7 as one of the most praised and influential JRPGs of all time), Radical Dreamers never saw localization outside of Japan. Why? Well, being stuck on unique hardware aside (which is a pretty big aside), Radical Dreamers is a text-based game, and much of the gameplay makes this more of a visual novel than a traditional JRPG. And combine that with the fact that “visual novels” have never been as popular in the West as Japan, and, oh yeah, an entirely text-based game having to be translated into another language would have been a tall order back when one guy named Ted was the entire translation department for a company… well… It is hard to blame anyone for the lack of Radical Dreamers in our lives. And this was the status quo through the years, as even when we saw rerelease after rerelease of Chrono Trigger, Square (and later, Square Enix) decided time and time again that we would not have Radical Dreamers on the Playstation or Nintendo DS. And besides, Chrono Cross was supposed to be a complete “perfect reimagining” of Radical Dreamers, so why would we need the text-based prototype? Radical Dreamers didn’t contain a single Lucky Dan!

But some kind soul at Square Enix finally believed we were ready, so Radical Dreamers was released in the United States in 2022 as part of the appropriately named Chrono Cross: Radical Dreamers collection. And now, after over two decades, this Chrono Trigger superfan finally got to play the “lost chapter” in his favorite franchise (that consists of like three games).

And you know what news I managed to miss over all the years of merely reading about Radical Dreamers? This mother fudger has random battles!

Here we goThis should not have been a surprise. Chrono Trigger did not have distinctly “random” fights, but it did have battles across many different time periods, and several of those fights were triggered by something as “random” as walking on the wrong floor tile. Similarly, Chrono Cross had its share of fights that were generally only triggered by smacking into a spot on the map, though with the caveat that a shockingly high number of areas outright required combat (go ahead and try to wake up the Black Dragon without fighting a town full of identical fishmen). With its creation sandwiched between its two more famous brothers, it seems completely natural that Radical Dreamers would be another game wherein a three-person band must repel the occasional ghost or demon. And, while sneaking around Viper Manor is something that could be “the same every time”, it is hard to see how random battles could not spice things up. Serge, your POV character, has health points. You have a reason to keep him alive, and now there are threats that could potentially deplete his life force. It is not just about bumping from room to room, it is about surviving this dangerous situation, and what could be more dangerous than fighting undead guards?

Look awayExcept… well… Battles are a little different in the world of a text adventure. Fight? Magic? Item? All normal things to see in a JRPG, but Radical Dreamers can be distinct. The nature of the beast here allows the narration to employ some fun tricks that would never fly in a traditional JRPG. One thing that flies, for instance, is Serge, as Magil defeats a ghost by enchanting Serge, and tossing the hapless teen at the ectoplasmic problem. Another example is a battle wherein a skeleton is described as assuming a position that is ”highly suggestive”, but the magic of text-based gameplay leaves the actual position to the imagination of the player. In short, whereas Radical Dreamers could have converted its simple “do you want to go left, right, or up the stairs” to “do you want to fight, run, or defend”, the writers did go the extra mile and craft a situation that feels wholly different from the traditional JRPG of the era.

But different does not always mean good. The first battle with a perverted skeleton is funny, but not so much on the third encounter that is exactly the same. This is a text-based game, and the downside of text-based games has always been that making the same choices will lead to the exact same outcomes. And, while that should simply be a problem when replaying the whole adventure, it is an issue that crops up over and over again in even a perfect playthrough of Radical Dreamers. It is possible in RD to continue to make progress and never see the same thing twice as you take your party through this mysterious mansion… except for the battles. There appear to be four different opponents (skeleton, ghost, demon, and goblin guard), and there are really good odds you will see the same fights repeatedly before you reach Lynx down in the basement. And if you do not know where you are going? If you get “lost” in this mansion and putter around the same hallways trying to remember just where the heck you found Radius’s dungeon the first time? You are certainly going to see the same fights continually. Nobody likes to do the same thing repeatedly, but, when your character has “real” HP, why would you risk not doing what worked earlier? Take the same path you did the last time you fought a demon. It means you will survive.

I think I know those guysAnd the even greater sin of boring the player is that it makes your party look stupid. Or maybe there is some level of collective Alzheimer’s going on? A ghost attacks! Serge ducks behind Magil! But Serge is shocked when Magil tosses the boy at the ghost! No one is hurt, but Serge sure has some questions. Just like last time. Exactly like last time. And there is only the (large) chance that you will fight the same monster repeatedly across one adventure, but it is definite that you will fight five goblins in a row when you raid the treasure chamber. And it is entirely possible those five goblin fights will all go exactly the same way, one after the other, with the characters all reacting exactly the same. In my own playthrough of this area, no less than three goblins died muttering to Magil, “where did you learn that spell? What kind of human are you?” It was creepy and interesting the first time! Not so much when it was repeated three times in a row. In short, not only are these “random battles” seemingly wholly pointless (there are no levels or experience to gain, but there is the slightest chance of gaining a dropped jewel after a battle, which increases Kid’s affection), they also actively detract from the characterization happening. These random battles remind the player that they are not involved in an epic story, they are playing a videogame.

But how is this different from the “random” battles in any “real” JRPG? How many times did Crono and friends have to fight goblins that followed the exact same patterns as the last thousand times they fought? How many times did Serge in the Chrono Cross universe fight skeletons that charmed his party members, slightly delaying a victory as he paused to pull out a healing element? How many other JRPGs feature battles that, over and over again, are exactly the same? You make progress in the dungeon, you eventually find your way to the big boss of the area, but your little dudes and dudettes are repeatedly fried by the same lesser dragons using the exact same fire breath attack? Really? They couldn’t figure out how to dodge the same assault they saw 80 times already? What is wrong with you idiots?

Kind of a cat?Well, at least not every game is the same. For an easy example, Final Fantasy 5 features four characters that eventually accumulate 22 jobs. That means there are thousands of different combinations of jobs and abilities within a Final Fantasy 5 party. And you could try them all! You could make every inconsequential battle a different opportunity to try something new. And you and your characters are never bored. But then you play something like… say… Wild Arms 3, and you have the exact same party with the exact same skills and (depending on the location) fight the exact same monsters continually for fifteen floors of the same dungeon. And, gee, I wonder which game was reviewed poorly for having “too many random encounters”. It was never about the number! It was always about the lack of variety! Bravely Default can support an endless dungeon of distinctive challenges. Xenosaga… not so much.

So is violence the answer? Well, it looks like the answer is extremely situational. If there are choices, if there are real options the player can choose, that makes all the difference. Then combat can be fun no matter the narrative situation. But when options are limited? When all you have are a few text boxes that lead to a handful of results? Then it is pointless. Just ignore it. Just run away. There is no reason to get in a fight if the rewards are only going to be thinking less of your own party.

And as far as the Radical Dreamers? Well, they better stay out of any and all fights. Don’t even think about lifting that swallow, Serge, it is never going to do you any good. We went a solid 20 years without this incarnation of Serge throwing hands, and it would be best if that continued.

FGC #629 Radical Dreamers (Complete Edition)

  • Looks like Marle...System: Super Nintendo kinda sorta but not really for anybody. Then, like a million years later, it was available as part of Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition for PC, Switch, Playstation 4, and Xbox One. So now you can play it.
  • Number of players: It was very hard to make visual novels multiplayer in 1996, so this is single player.
  • A shape of things to come: The main path of Radical Dreamers is arguably somber, complete with a finale that all but guarantees someone will die (though they get better). That said, the alternate paths involve a whole lot of whacky mischief, including an inexplicable giant mech battle, so you can see how the likes of silly characters Funguy or Skelly wound up palling around with the rest of the dour Chrono Cross cast.
  • Returning Favorites: Radius (eventually of Chrono Cross) is locked up in a dungeon, and is lamenting the death of every other Acacia Dragoon (though they all have different names from CC’s luminaries). Riddel is Lynx’s adopted daughter, but now she is a blonde that is significantly more princess-y. The leader of the Porre forces is not Norris, but a creepy old lady named Vera that seems to naturally attract bats. And Lynx… might be a cat? It is hard to tell if he is supposed to be distinctly feline, or just has weird facial hair. Also, there is what is best described as “the nerd goblin”, and it is implied that he is Chrono Cross’s Dario… or at least someone that fills the same role as Riddel’s former lover.
  • Do I know you?So, is Magus back? Despite reports I have been hearing for years, Magil is never overtly confirmed to be Magus over the course of the adventure. That said, he knows a heck of a lot about the Masamune, the Lost Kingdom of Zeal, dark magic, and, oh yeah, he looks exactly like Magus from the first second of the game. The only evidence that appears that Magil is not Magus is that Magil seems more jovial than Magus ever was… but that isn’t hard to do. There are some turnips that are more jovial than Magus (and, no, I am not talking about that Turnip).
  • Did you know? Serge has a radically different design for Radical Dreamers. He is dressed like a complete moron. Or maybe the hero of Dragon Quest 7. Who was also a complete moron. It cannot be emphasized enough how Serge got a glow up for Chrono Cross.
  • Would I play again: Unlikely. This is an important artifact of gaming, particularly for someone who so thoroughly enjoys the Chrono Trigger franchise. That said, I am not a guy who enjoys visual novels past an initial playthrough, and if I want to read a novel about Chrono Trigger characters, I’ll just hit some fanfic. Fans got me through waiting for Chrono Cross to be released, and they can do it again.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth! Time for an elf to take some time off her shelf. Please look forward to it!

So serene
Kind of looks like a preview for next week