Tag Archives: vita

FGC #534 Limbo

How low will we go?Dreams are awesome. They are a shared part of our collective humanity, but nobody knows how they work. Everybody dreams, and science has proven that dreams are absolutely essential to a person functioning properly. And why is that? Nobody knows! Dreams are vital to our crazy brains, but the exact explanations for why are varied and occasionally ridiculous. Maybe our cognition just needs a break. Maybe it’s a simple “escape hatch” for the brain, a sort of “my head is pooping right now”, and “dreams” as we know them are some kind of side-effect (head farts?). Maybe we need to experience fantasy and nonsense on a nightly basis, or our ability to properly discern reality falls apart. Or maybe there’s a deep, primal need to occasionally imagine a world where Warwick Davis is really interested in your testicles for some reason. Am I the only one that has that dream? No, that has to be universal…

Regardless of the biological origin of dreams, they are a shared experience, and everyone understands the ephemeral nature of dreams. We occasionally discuss “the classics”, like imagining you are caught unprepared for a math test, or have shown up for an important business meeting wearing nothing but your “Are You Up 2 It” official Sonic the Hedgehog 2 shirt; but our conscious minds often ignore how fluid things become when we are unconscious. One minute you’re talking to your great grandmother, the next moment she’s a cat you haven’t seen since childhood, and you’re at the mall for some reason, and grandma-cat ran away, but your second lover from college is here, and they’re making goose noises, and, for some reason, you just won the lottery, so you’re going to buy an assload of transformers, but now the mall is on fire, and you should probably deal with that first, because you’re a firefighter, obviously. And the amazing part of dreams is how quickly your mind adapts to whatever is created by your mind (though, granted, when phrased like that, it does seem fairly obvious). Under normal circumstances, your undead great grandma transforming into a feline would be cause for concern, but in a dream, that is normal, and you roll with it. It’s absurd, but you naturally assume it to be genuine right now.

And that’s exactly how videogames work.

This ends poorlyNow, of course, I can already hear the cacophony of comments telling me I’m wrong about this (… I mean, assuming this website ever had an active comments section. Metalman Master? Are you okay?). Some videogames may work on dream logic, but don’t movies and books work the same way, too? And aren’t there an overwhelming number of realistic videogames wherein family members rarely become animals? And that’s all true, but it ignores how often videogames have to compromise true cohesion for being, ya know, videogames. To put it plainly: a grounded movie like The Godfather may have had some fantastic elements involved in its story that would require a lot of coincidence for such a thing to play out exactly the same in real life (the cost of oranges alone…), but The Godfather doesn’t have to find a way to shoehorn in a sewer level, either. Videogames have requirements, and sometimes that means your all-powerful, god-like hero has to demean himself by participating in a sidequest that involves finding a hundred puppies. Sometimes the guy that can jump 70 feet in the air for a “limit break” can’t find a way to bypass a gnarled root that happens to be blocking an important path. And, as we all know, if your hero is in a heated battle, he can likely soak as many bullets as he has medkits. But put that same hero in front of a gun during a cutscene, and suddenly that insane HP count means nothing. Yes, all fiction works on “dream logic” to a degree, but, more than any other medium, videogames require dream logic to function. Tolkien never had to balance Frodo’s stats so he’d be viable in multiplayer…

It's about the climbAnd dream logic works wonderfully for videogames. The lava level is next to the ice level, that’s just how it is, and you don’t have to spend the rest of the day trying to figure out why the Mushroom Kingdom hasn’t flooded yet. Similarly, dream logic can be applied liberally according to the director’s desires, and that’s why one of gaming’s most popular franchises features three guys who are all the same guy and he’s not to be confused with the guy who is also thirteen other guys. It all makes perfect sense! A game following logic that should only be possible in a certain kind of anti-reality isn’t a bug, it’s a feature of the medium, and every last JRPG or regular-sized robot adventure has prepared us for stories where it’s perfectly natural that the villain has sentient flames for hands or whatever.

And, more than any other game, Limbo uses its dream logic in the best ways possible.

Limbo is a game that defined the indie gaming scene for a solid few years. It is short. It is simple. Your protagonist can walk, jump, and push/pull objects. That’s it, and you can (only) do all this in a world that is literally black and white. There is no dialogue. There are no other playable characters. There are collectibles that do nothing more than unlock achievements for achievement’s sake. You are walking left to right, and are eventually going to reach the end. Or an end. Limbo doesn’t provide anything in the way of goals, but it’s a videogame, so you’re probably doing… something. Save the world? Save the princess? Whatever. It’s somewhere over to the right.

And, yes, if that sounds like dream logic, then you’re ready for the next part: Limbo uses its limited palette magnificently to blend all sorts of realities.

Here he comesI’m pretty sure Limbo starts in some kind of forest. It then proceeds to some manner of village, a city, an industrial site, and the finale takes place in an area one could describe as “Buzz Saws R Us” that coincidentally features some pretty swank future technology. Is it an alien space craft? An anti-gravity testing site? Or maybe just a particularly loaded Chuck E Cheese? Whatever the case, a location featuring the ability to reverse the fundamental laws of nature is a far cry from earlier areas where opponents were equipped with blow darts. And this all happens over the course of a few hours! Why can’t the weirdos from the first area go hang out in the techtopia that is an hour’s walk away? Come on, guys, it can’t be that hard to solve those ladder puzzles on your way to a better life!

And the answer is, obviously, it doesn’t matter. Limbo doesn’t take place in a world, it takes place in a dream. Limbo isn’t a place with real rules governing giant spider monsters, it is an environment to explore, a spot to exist for a few hours. It is a place that might be mortally dangerous for your unnamed protagonist, but it is also somewhere where you, the player, can enjoy yourself. It is a game world. It is a home for your mind to relax, free from the pressures of the real world. It is a dream. It might not make linear sense, it might not have a clear goal or reason for existence, and you could spend the rest of your life trying to understand its every nuance and significance (what are so many bear traps meant to represent?), but none of that matters. It’s there to help your brain, and you don’t have to understand every last where and why about that. This is good for you. You need it. Enjoy it.

I think we're closeLimbo, with its simultaneously limited and diverse world, reminds us what is important about videogames. Sometimes it’s not about a rich mythology, intricate gameplay, or a story that makes you feel some fundamental part of your soul; it’s about the journey, and experiencing everything as it comes. A spider can segue into a neon sign into a mine cart, and that’s all that it needs to do. We don’t know why we need dreams to survive, and, similarly, we don’t need to know why videogames can make our lives better. Sometimes it’s just about enjoying this thing that is happening in front of your eyes, and ours is not to reason why a series of weird, white eggs can be smashed along the way.

Limbo is a game that works on dream logic, and, as such, it becomes a dream of a videogame.

And dreams are still awesome.

FGC #534 Limbo

  • System: Initially an Xbox 360, but it eventually wound up on the PS3, Vita, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch. Might I recommend playing one of the portable versions in a darkened room?
  • Number of Players: This is one player to the max.
  • So, which version? The later versions of Limbo apparently include extra levels and a bonus stage if you collect all the trinkets about (and, to be clear, it’s not that kind of bonus stage). However, I’m sticking to the Xbox 360 version, as its almost “half finished” nature is appealing to me. I don’t want more content! I want a game that feels like it ends completely randomly!
  • A bad place to stayHey, what’s the story here? Nobody knows! People have been trying to interpret exactly what happens in Limbo for years, and, as a noted Kingdom Heartsologist, I would like to formally state that nothing about Limbo’s story matters. Is he dead? Is she dead? Are we all dead? It doesn’t matter! It’s a videogame! It’s a dream! Go overanalyze a Zelda game!
  • Favorite Puzzle… Thingy? Event? Whatever. It’s the giant spider. I have never felt so much animosity toward a creature I eventually rolled around like a ball.
  • Did you know? To the best of anyone’s knowledge, there is no such thing as a “brain slug” that can attach to someone’s head to make them walk in a particular direction. However! There is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a kind of fungus that “infects” ants, kills them, but still makes them walk over to leaves for some shade. This process apparently takes days, and, during that time, the host-ant’s head will literally explode from the force of the spores bursting forth. So, just, ya know, it’s rough being an ant.
  • Would I play again: There were many complaints about Limbo being too short back around its release, but sometimes short is a good thing! I could play through Limbo again sometime. Maybe around Halloween? That sounds like a good time.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland for the Nintendo DS! Oh good! It’s everyone’s favorite Zelda character, Tingle! Kooloo Limpah! Please look forward to it!

Good frog
I’m sure this makes perfect sense… somehow.

FGC #496 Puyo Puyo Tetris

BLOCKS!My fiancée will tell you quite loudly and clearly that she does not play videogames. My fiancée is also a liar. She plays videogames. She just doesn’t play “videogames” as she thinks the world defines them. She plays Candy Crush. She plays some other game that looks exactly the same, but involves farm animals. I think there’s another one with soda. She plays these games constantly, whether we’re sitting watching a movie or traveling to the wilds of Canada. And Pokémon Go! When it’s raining, she will get in the car, and drive around the neighborhood for hours looking to find a shiny or conquer a local gym. If this were a MMORPG, she’d be sitting at a computer for hours, but since her chosen raids are partially based in the real world, she’s not really playing a videogame, you understand. I proposed to her with a friggen’ Pokéball, for crying out loud!

Sparkles

But, no, she doesn’t play videogames. Yes, I completely understand that compared to my gaming habits, she doesn’t “play videogames” (she doesn’t even have a videogame blog! Can you imagine?), but to claim that she doesn’t play videogames at all seems… disingenuous. She doesn’t play the same kind of videogames that are traditionally covered on this blog, but she absolutely plays videogames. And, what’s more, these are not simple, even-your-grandma-can-play games. She routinely plays games that involve experience points, rationed continues, and complex resource management. There’s no judgment against supposed “casuals” here, videogames are videogames, and whether or not a Pikachu or some manner of sentient fruit is involved is inconsequential.

Blocks!One videogame my fiancée plays is Tetris. According to her own words, it is her favorite videogame (which, reminder, is something she doesn’t play). She’s been playing it for years, and notes that during some of the less hectic times in her life, she played quite a lot of it. She’s good at it. I can say with firsthand knowledge that she kicks ass at Tetris, and I have the recorded play sessions from Tetris Effect to prove it.

And, given I believe this is the first I’ve ever mentioned my fiancée on this blog, I feel I should note something else: she’s a bit of a… let’s say… completionist. She pathologically cannot deal with leaving tasks unfinished, and her Type A personality compels her to complete goals to the best of her ability, earn an A on that math test, and then win the big football game because she spiked the final 3-pointer (she tells me she also understands sports better than I do). She deals poorly with losing for any reason in any way, and, officer, I assure you this black eye of mine is from walking into a doorknob, and certainly not because the dear love of my life threw a chair at me when I caught a rare Pokémon before her. As a result of this personality quirk that she honestly and wholly admits is an issue, we don’t often play competitive games together. Even if I win, I lose, so let’s play some games where we either cooperate or work in parallel. It’s better for our collective mental health.

So I really should have known better than to suggest we play Puyo Puyo Tetris for crossover week (“week”). I should have used my good eye to foresee the inevitable.

WeeeeeFor those of you unfamiliar with the title, Puyo Puyo Tetris is exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a puzzle game that combines Puyo Puyo and Tetris. For those of you unfamiliar with Puyo Puyo, it’s a color-block matching game that has visited America in various disguises over the years. For those of you unfamiliar with Tetris, welcome to Earth, and I hope you enjoy your stay on our humble planet. In both cases, we’re dealing with games where objects fall infinitely from the sky, and you must carefully manage these bits and pieces so they “clear” and your play area is not filled with so much useless junk. And this version of these respective games is predominantly based on the concept of multiplayer, so you also have to deal with offensive “junk blocks” that are generated by your opponent doing well. It’s not enough to play the game with skill, you also have to be wary of your rival playing the game with that same skill, but faster.

But just because both games are involved, don’t think they don’t completely interact. Back in the Super Nintendo days, we had Tetris & Dr. Mario, but that title was little more than an excuse to tape two Gameboy games together and sell the package for $70. Tetris and Dr. Mario intermingled about as much as Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3 in Super Mario All-Stars. Puyo Puyo Tetris is another story. You can play head-to-head Puyo Puyo or head-to-head Tetris, but you can also play Puyo Puyo while your opponent picks up a game of Tetris. And it’s not simply “parallel play”, a properly completed Tetris can send junk sailing over to your Puyopponent. And it doesn’t stop there! There are other “versus” modes available that involve both games, like a puzzle speed run mode (called Big Bang Mode because “puzzle mode” sounds like a punishment), or another option where the game rapidly alternates between Puyo Puyo and Tetris boards. There’s even a mode that combines Tetris and Puyo Puyo into one focused game that adopts blocks and puyos from both franchises.

I think it was that mode in particular that caused my fiancée to start shouting expletives I cannot repeat on this blog.

I have no ideaLook, Tetris and Puyo Puyo being played in a sort of parallel is one thing, but outright combining the gameplay of both into one complete board is borderline crazy. The benefit of both of these games is that, individually, there isn’t much that has to be learned or understood to get going. Yes, there are complicated techniques involving starting combos or focused spinning or whatever in both games, but they’re both superficially very straightforward. Match the colors, line up the blocks. Empty spaces bad, alternating colors bad. The end. The best puzzle games are instantly understandable, and both Tetris and Puyo Puyo fit that bill. This is literally the reason your grandpa wanted a Gameboy. But Tetris + Puyo Puyo is confusing. Clearing a line requires using Tetris blocks, while popping puyos require puyo bubbles, and you don’t always have access to either kind of block. What’s worse, there are some moves that don’t seem to have obvious consequences, like how squishing some puyo bubbles with tetris blocks looks like you’re clearing out the clutter, but the bubbles will respawn and fall shortly thereafter. It’s something that happens every time, but it’s not immediate or often enough for a player to quickly distinguish whether these “junk blocks” are the result of something done by the player or their opponent. It creates a sort of “stress” that is not the traditional “things are getting heated because the board is filling up” stress, but more of an “I have no idea why things are happening or how I can make it better” stress. And it occurred to me that this stress could be very traumatic for some people right around when I won a match and my dear fiancée hit me with a folding chair. She is normally so respectful of the furniture!

And this might just be the pain meds talking, but there’s a certain… beauty in this crossover chaos.

What?Tetris x Puyo Puyo loses something. It loses its simplicity, and, with that, it loses its immediate and obvious accessibility. It loses an “easiness” that has been comfortable for decades. But it gains something in exchange. It is more complicated, but that complication adds nuance and techniques that would otherwise be completely absent from the experience. It adds a whole new dimension that was never there before, and would be completely impossible to so much as touch in the normal, base games. I have played a lot of Tetris games over the years, but they’ve always been constrained by being… Tetris. Adding Puyo Puyo to Tetris creates a whole new world of possibilities, and, while it does take some time to learn, it is an actual new experience. Tetris Effect, you’re great, but this is a genuinely, wholly fresh experience, and it’s satisfying to shift over to such a change once in a lifetime.

Tetris loses a little bit of itself. Puyo Puyo loses a little bit of itself. But what is gained, the final gestalt of the merging of these two things, that is greater than the two original items. Sometimes it’s hard to learn the ins and outs of this new…. thing, but it’s worth it. Both games are better for having crossed over.

Oh, anyway, did I mention I’m engaged?

She sparkles

I did? Yeah, there might be a metaphor here.

I love you, honey, and I’m looking forward to our crossover continuing.

Now… uh… could you put down that tire iron? I promise I was only kidding about playing Mario Kart…

FGC #496 Puyo Puyo Tetris

  • System: My understanding is that this is available on Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, and Steam. However, there are also versions available in Japan (from 2014!) for Xbox One, 3DS, Wii U, Playstation Vita, and Playstation 3. This game is more traveled than I thought!
  • Number of players: Four player split screen action! Online modes available, too! It’s all very crazy and/or fun!
  • Favorite Mode: It’s the Puyo Puyo x Tetris mode. Did you get that from the article? I like new things right now. That may change in the near future.
  • But seriously folks: My dear fiancée is not physically violent. If you are in a relationship with someone that abuses you, physically or mentally, and you don’t have any options, please seek help. There are many highly trained counselors and nonprofit organizations out there that can help you, even in our current, nebulous existence. And I am not saying this because someone is holding a frying pan to my head.
  • Let's go!How about that Story Mode: Is this what it’s like for other people playing Kingdom Hearts? There are just all these weird anime characters with silly hair running around and shouting at each other for level after level, and, eventually, it is revealed this is all because “god” is angry and lonely and might need a hug. Or to play Tetris. And then the universe is saved thanks to a robot that sounds like a Pokémon.
  • Did you know? This is the first American release of a straight Puyo Puyo title since Puyo Pop Fever in 2004. Everybody counts the years between Metroid releases as some sign as to whether or not the franchise is dead, but nobody gives a damn about when Puyos haven’t been seen for a decade….
  • Would I play again: Just as soon as the swelling goes down, I think we could try playing this one again. I am going to have to find some manner of anchor to confirm the Switch isn’t tossed across the room, though.

What’s next? Enough with the mushy stuff! Our final crossover title is going to be the best crossover game released in the last decade. Please look forward to it!

WINNER

FGC #476 Final Fantasy 9

Fantasy Time!Final Fantasy 9 doesn’t get enough respect for being the top of its very specific, very forgotten class.

It’s easy to see why someone would have issues with Final Fantasy 9 at its initial release. For starters, it was a JRPG right there at the end of the Playstation 1 JRPG boom. This meant it had a healthy amount of competition from all angles (including an in-house rivalry with Square’s own Chrono Cross). And, honestly, a “throwback” JRPG in that environment was the worst possible idea. Yes, the Final Fantasy franchise had drifted very far from the medieval fantasy origins of Final Fantasy (give or take a floating techno city), but that didn’t mean the rest of the genre had moved on with it. Medieval fantasy JRPGs were a dime a dozen in 2000, and practically everything in Final Fantasy 9 had been done by other JRPGs of the eon. Fantasy world with a whole bunch of depressed furries? We’ve already got Breath of Fire. Your Princess suicidally depressed into a haircut thanks to being responsible for the destruction of her kingdom? Straight out of the Wild Arms playbook. Hell, even some seemingly unique flourishes are improbably specifically from other titles of the epoch: the malevolent monster fog that initially rescinds and then blankets the world in a time of crisis is the entire premise of Legend of Legaia. In short, there’s a thin line between “retro” and “derivative”, and then it’s an even shorter hop to “outright theft”. And it probably didn’t help that Final Fantasy 9’s hero is a thief…

And, come to think of it, that thief was a problem, too. Every protagonist, from Beatrix to Zidane, is deliberately evocative of other heroes in the Final Fantasy franchise. Vivi might go through an interesting journey from “9 year old” to “inspiration for an entire society”, but a quick glance reminds you he’s still just a generic Final Fantasy Black Mage. Freya is a dragoon obsessed with her potential lover, and Dagger is a princess with global responsibility issues. And Eiko? Look, I’m sorry, but Rydia called, and she wants her everything back. And it’s kind of hard to not be cynical when you’ve seen these characters before and liked their games better. With very little exaggeration, by the time some people played Final Fantasy 9, they had already played Final Fantasy 6 for approximately 500 hours. BORKYou want your protagonist to fill the shoes of Locke Cole, you damn well better be sure he’s going to bring something new to the table. Oh? At one point in one dungeon he gets sad about being a monkey? But then he instantly recovers? Wow, Final Fantasy 9, you phoned it in so hard, Steiner just learned the rotary-dial ability.

But now it’s twenty years later. Time has passed, and, for better or worse, the world is very different. Now JRPGs are only medieval when they’re also showcasing anime high school students. Now Final Fantasy is a brand that includes more spin-offs and “experiments” than it does actual numbered entries (and those numbered entries get their own, specific spin-offs, too!). The idea that any one game could capture the zeitgeist of the franchise and its most prominent age is no more possible than you could now produce a film that somehow featured every movie star back to the dawn of Hollywood. The Final Fantasy franchise is now so much more than “there used to be crystals, right?”, so Final Fantasy 9 being some kind of deliberate nostalgic journey seems… quaint.

… And it’s not like anyone is going to compare FF9 to Legend of Legaia anymore. Nobody remembers Legend of Legaia.

So now, divorced from the expectations of the bygone year of 2000, it’s easy to play Final Fantasy 9 and see that the real innovations could never be found by watching this…

Weeeeee

But by playing through this…

What's the haps?

In case you’re unfamiliar with the intricacies of Final Fantasy 9’s plot and its various scenarios, let me explain what you’re seeing there. Ultimately, this is not a complicated scene: it’s Darth Vader telling Luke he’s his daddy. Zidane has just discovered his home planet, and Garland here is explaining how he created Zidane to destroy the (or at least one) world, and souls have to migrate through a magical tree, and Zidane’s brother is another destroyer-monkey that apparently exists with an expiration date, and… Actually, come to think of it? Maybe this scene is a little complicated. This happens a lot in JRPGs: the crux of the plot involves a lot of metaphysical and metaphorical ideas, and there’s really no way to get that information to the player without evoking some kind of massive info dump. In this case, Final Fantasy 9 has wholly invented its own version of the afterlife/reincarnation, and, in order to simultaneously explain the details of that system and how the villains are gumming up the works, you basically need an introductory course on Final Fantasy 9’s religion. Christians don’t know how easy they have it when they can just toss off a line like, “I’ll send you to Hell!” without having to follow it with, “Which is a location where the greatest sinners are eternally tortured by Satan, a demon that once fell from Grace when…”

BORKBut what is being explained isn’t important (sorry about the previous paragraph, I’ll try not to waste your time with asides in the future… wait! Dammit!), what’s important to the entire genre is how it’s being explained. Garland is not confined to a mere text box, nor is Garland a giant cut-out that encompasses half the screen. Garland is hovering across a magical mushroom patch (or… something) and explaining the why of Final Fantasy 9 while “escaping” Zidane. This is inevitably leading to a showdown of some sort, and requires the player to actively “play” while listening to Garland. Want to know more? Of course you do! Follow the floating evil dude. You’re actively playing a videogame, after all, and a role-playing game at that. You think Zidane wants to know more? Of course he does! You’re playing as Zidane! Your goals are one in the same. Now go on, scoot, follow that bearded knight and get the whole story. After all, if you’re Zidane, you’re part of the story.

And that’s something we never saw again.

The very next Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy 10 (yes, I know stating sequential numbers sounds obvious, but please remember that the next FF after that was Final Fantasy 10-2), relied on voice acting and dedicated cinema scenes for its plot advancement, thus making the franchise “like a movie”. And that’s great for anyone that uses their PS2 to play DVDs, but maybe not the best for the person picking up a controller to actually play a game. Regardless, we were all very excited about Final Fantasy 10, its movies, and other similar games like Metal Gear Solid 2 or Xenosaga. Game-movies are the future! It’s like the moving pictures! Videogames can finally be as respectable as Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2! Games are art! … Except we weren’t lauding the “game” part of our videogames, we were just excited about the occasional moments when a videogame could feature a mini-movie… and whether or not any sort of player participation was involved was completely moot. Grab some popcorn! It’s time to play a videogame!

PLORPBut I’m not telling you, dear audience, anything you don’t already know. We remember the bygone Playstation 2 years, and we remember the gradual drift from “movie games” back to “games you actually play”. Yes, we still deal with the latest games touting sparkling stars performing minor voice acting, or “deeply cinematic visuals”, but, by and large we’ve gotten away from action games just sitting back and letting Norman Reedus deliver a soliloquy about baby carrying… Except for in the genre that started this whole mess. JRPGs are still considered plot-delivery devices, and, whether you’re playing a game featuring a lady trying to organize her armies against a dragon goddess, or some title where everyone inexplicably wants to %&*# the dragons in a wildly different way, you still wind up with “sit here and watch” cinema scenes for everything from tea parties to castle storming. Somewhere along the line, it was determined that JRPGs are closer to visual novels than any other genre, and would you care to sit down and have some exposition today? It might be explaining a planet’s apocalyptic backstory, or it could simply be the recounting of a supporting player’s daddy issues, but it still means you’re just sitting there smacking X to advance.

And what’s worse? In the absence of the seemingly unlimited budget of pre-Spirits Within Square, everything has flattened out to this…

So brave

And it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a “retro-throwback”, or a JRPG so popular that it apparently earned its spot in Smash Bros history…

What a bunch of jokers

The directors of Final Fantasy 9 knew exactly what they were doing. Final Fantasy 9 is a game that never loses sight of being a videogame, and uses every “trick” that surfaced in the thirteen years that had passed since Final Fantasy. From multiple character animations, to dynamically moving villains, to even something as simple as “interrupting” text boxes, Final Fantasy 9 does everything it can to keep the player engaged in every conceivable way. After all, why would you bother with another goofy sidequest or “Active Time Event” if each wasn’t vibrant and remarkable?

Final Fantasy 9 truly was the end point of all JRPGs that came before. It’s just a shame it was also the end of the dynamic JRPG.

FGC #476 Final Fantasy 9

  • System: Playstation 1 in its first go, but it’s made it to the Playstation 3, Vita, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Switch in the intervening years. May I recommend any version that involves a fast forward button?
  • Number of players: Oddly enough, Final Fantasy 9 has the ability to assign combat controls to either controller port, so you can technically co-op play FF9. Yay! I called Vivi!
  • Remake Reproblems: I very much appreciate everything that is involved in the HD remake of Final Fantasy 9. Fast forwarding is amazing for a game that has always had absurdly slow combat. Automatically maxing your levels and abilities for when you don’t feel like grinding from square one is something I have wanted forever. And the graphical touchups add a new volume to a game that a lot of us originally played on ancient televisions that could barely handle three colors. But, man oh man, someone didn’t put nearly enough time into making sure the new HD sprites match the “HD” cinematics. Some of the most dramatic scenes in this game now appear to be animated by the folks behind Monty Python, and it’s not the best look.
  • HUNGRY!Cool Car: Your final airship is the Invincible, a destructive “monster ship” from Zidane’s home planet (and another Final Fantasy reference). It is also the ship that obliterated Princess Dagger’s home on two separate occasions. Dagger lampshades the situation if you chat with her aboard your new ride, but it’s still more than a little weird that the first princess of PTSD is totally cool with riding around on her own personal atomic bomb.
  • Favorite Dungeon: Gizamaluke’s Grotto is the best name for a dungeon ever, and I will hear no objections to this apparent fact. The fact that it contains multiple exits and a moogle wedding is just gravy.
  • What’s in a name: Pumice is the stone that eventually allows you to summon the combat airship, Ark. However, in the original Japanese, Pumice is known as the “Floating Stone”. That makes a lot more sense for this franchise.
  • What’s in a name Part 2: One of Kuja’s pet dragons, Nova Dragon, was originally named Shinryu, ala the chief reptilian super boss of the series. Given Nova Dragon provides such a lackluster fight, It’s probably for the best that this one got changed…
  • So, did you beat it: I got everything on the original hardware, including the Strategy Guide that is a reward for murdering the super boss. And I did that all without a real strategy guide, because the official strategy guide for Final Fantasy 9 is the worst thing to ever happen to the medium.
  • But you still own it, right? I got the collector’s edition!
    I hate this thing

    Visit Playonline for more information on how my life is a lie!
  • Did you know? There are nine knights of Pluto! And Pluto is the ninth planet in our solar system. Or… at least it used to be…
  • Would I play again: This… is not my favorite Final Fantasy title. I love exactly what it did, but the speed of everything kills me, and my knowledge of all those sidequests I’m ignoring if I ever want to finish the game again within my lifetime is terrible for my conscience. Final Fantasy 9, you’re an amazing game, but I just can’t deal with you right now.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Stretch Panic for the Playstation 2! …. God dammit. Please look forward to it, if you must.

WARK

FGC #468 Shovel Knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it wasn’t anywhere near done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it all came from one Kickstarter.

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

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

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

Smash it Good!
Slash it Good!
Bonk it good

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

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

2010: The decade of Shovelry.

FGC #468 Shovel Knight

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

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

Shake it