The 12 games of Christmas #9: Life Force

We didn’t get Gradius II for NES here in America, but in my opinion we got something better: Life Force, the oddball reworking of Salamander. It wasn’t a true Gradius game, but that made it all the better. Although I am endlessly jealous of the sweet translucent blue cartridge it shipped on for Famicom.

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I mean, day-amn. Even when we got the same stuff as Japan, they still got better stuff.

But, OK, whatever. I played Life Force to the point of exhaustion, which is to say I progressively worked my way from being able to beat it just barely with the 30-lives code, to being able to beat it on one credit with 30 lives, to being able to beat it on one credit, to being able to beat it on one life. Which I did exactly once and never again, because that escape sequence at the end never ceases to be some hardcore B.S.

The real Christmas miracle of Life Force is that it proves my mother was (is!?) a ninja. When I unwrapped this on Christmas morning, she was amused to see the surprise in my face; I honestly didn’t expect to ever own the game, which pained me slightly because the box art filled my soul with aesthetic desire. (Something about that silver-trimmed Konami house style combined with a phenomenal painting of a massive space serpent enwreathed by flame really appealed to the budding artist in me.) I expressed my gratitude for the game, and she laughed at my surprise, because it turned out she had bought the game on a shopping excursion for which I had been taken along. She somehow managed to buy a game which my finely tuned adolescent eye, always on the search for anything video game-related, should have been on high alert for while I was walking right beside her, inches away from the shopping cart in which it had been secreted.

I suppose it helped that this was in the last days before retailers began to put video games in class cases and behind the camera counter, the end of games being left out on open shelf hangers. But still. Good work, Mom.

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Life Force may not have been the technical, visual marvel that Gradius II was, but it traded slightly (slightly!) downgraded visuals for more varied game design and the audacious decision to allow for two-player simultaneous action. I say “audacious” because, really, how else would you describe it when someone designs a largely horizontal shooter in which each player can potentially acquire long, beam-like weapons and multiple secondary guns to triple their firepower… on a system notorious for the strict limits on the number of sprites that could appear simultaneously on a single horizontal line? Life Force practically dared players to grab Options and Lasers and spam the screen with beams, and even so it managed to juggle NES hardware priorities in such a way that it never became unplayable. Sure, there was flicker and even some slowdown, but never enough to interfere with the action. Kind of amazing.

Konami even added a couple of new stages specifically for the NES version just to show off. “Cartridge space limitations?” they sneered. “Whatever, have some Space Tut.”

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But perhaps best of all, they worked in a Gradius-like power-up system, a huge improvement over the arcade game’s more restrictive approach. While they hadn’t quite yet arrived at the weapon customization system that would appear with Gradius III, it was still a huge boost to player control. Who knows why Life Force/Salamander didn’t use the Gradius mechanic to begin with, since it was obviously patterned closely after Gradius. Maybe the designers wanted to make their own mark. But still, there’s no shame in admitting someone else’s way is better, and the designers of Life Force on NES sucked down their pride for the betterment of the game.

Between its simultaneous cooperative play, alternating vertical and horizontal level formats, excellent visuals and music, and fun and interesting themes, Life Force remains my favorite member of the Gradius family. (Even if it’s not.) You see, it ninja’d its way into my heart one Christmas.

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The 12 games of Christmas #10: Faxanadu

My family used to have a tradition, back when my mother’s side of the family all lived in the same place: On Christmas Eve, the whole family would crowd in together at someone’s house, have a casual dinner together, and exchange a few gifts. We’d also have lunch together on Christmas and exchange gifts then; the thing the night before was more of an appetizer for the materialistic children in the family, I suppose.

One year, I received only a single gift in the pre-game exchange. But it was the exact size and dimensions of an NES game, so I didn’t exactly feel too put out; at that point in life, NES games were the equivalent for me of, say, the way my wife feels when she unwraps a tiny box and sees Tiffany’s blue peeking out. Which is to say, a precious and necessarily rare event, because I come from a long line of games journalists and god knows we’re not made of money.

When I peeled back the wrapping paper, my enthusiasm over my good fortune was somewhat dampened by what it revealed: The most boring NES box ever made.

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OK, I get that they were going for the minimalist classiness of The Legend of Zelda, but dull sandstone and simple calligraphy lacked the visual impact of Zelda’s shiny gold box with thoughtfully sophisticated typography and a cutaway emblem to reveal the special cartridge inside. I felt like my aforementioned wife almost certainly would if she opened up that blue box to find a pendant that spelled out “JUICY” in rhinestones.

In fact, “wingboots” are basically the fantasy game equivalent of “JUICY.” Have some class.

I’d also had a small amount of prior experience with Faxanadu, and I had found it to be as dull and brown as the box it came in. It might be the first game to fully capture the spirit of HD-era aesthetics, in fact. Everything in Faxanadu is brown and drab. The world, the hero, the bad guys, the NPCs. And it kind of felt like it wanted to be Zelda II, but at the same time it moved a lot more slowly and the hero couldn’t crouch to deal with low-crawling monsters. It had made a bad impression all around.

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But it was a gift, and you don’t sneer in disappointment when someone gives you a gift — especially one that tops out at the upper end of the gift-spending scale. I said my obligatory “thank yous” and went back to munching on Christmas cookies and feeling that unique sense of awkwardness that the oldest child in the youngest generation of an extended family feels at family gatherings for those few years where he or she has hit adolescence and therefore isn’t quite grown-up enough to hang with the adults but doesn’t quite fit with the pre-teens anymore, either.

I opened a much more exciting game as a gift the following morning, and Faxaandu sat unloved for a few weeks while I plumbed the depths of that one. Eventually, though, I cast about to find a new NES experience and realized, oh well, I might as well play Faxanadu.

Turns out it was actually really good! Clumsy and flawed, as an NES game originally designed in 1987 was wont to be, but smarter and more ambitious than it first let on. It was an action RPG of sorts, and my sad excuse for a warrior grew steadily more powerful over the course of his journey. Not only that, but his appearance actually changed to reflect his new acquisitions, which games just didn’t do back then: Over time, he went from a guy in an unimpressive tunic wielding a sad little dagger to a guy with a crazy multi-pronged sword and silvery armor head-to-toe. (He also learned a magic spell to take care of the low-crawling enemies, which was handy.)

Even the dull visuals of the game served a point: The narrative behind Faxanadu‘s journey involved the death of the World Tree, so of course everything looked like it was made of shriveling wood: It kind of was. Plus, the muted color palette allowed Hudson’s designers to play around with some graphic techniques that lent surprising depth and texture to the world; rather than dealing in simple, bold primaries, they experimented with tones, resulting in interesting effects like the swirling fog of the World Tree’s innermost parts (still one of my favorite 8-bit visual touches). And it also meant that once you saved the World Tree, it exploded into bright green foliage to lend the simple ending much more impact. You, the hero, made a difference!

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And it wasn’t your typical NES ending where the bad guy’s fortress collapsed or exploded; instead, you did something constructive in the course of your journey. All in all, a game I unfairly judged by its cover. But, seriously, can you blame me?

Anyway, 25 years later, I’m looking forward to the upcoming sequel, Tokyo Xanadu. Don’t let us down, Xseed.

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The 12 games of Christmas #11: Zelda II – The Adventure of Link

Hi, my name is Jeremy, and I am and always have been kind of a jerk.

I borrowed The Legend of Zelda from a friend when I was in junior high, with a few pointers for some of the more obtuse puzzles, handily destroyed the game within the space of a couple of weeks. A few days later, I had ruined the Second Quest, too, because apparently I was some kind of video game Rain Man back then. Needless to say, I was pumped for Zelda II… to the point where I would call every department and toy store in the city (which was quite a few in a town of a quarter-million people) several times a week in search of it.

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Of course, Zelda II ended up being tragically, hideously delayed, because historically Nintendo is not very good at mass-manufacturing (he says, as he scans over “sorry, we canceled your preorder!” email notifications for multiple Amiibos). It was set for initial release in the summer of 1988 but ended up not coming out until late that fall. That’s a lot of fruitless phone calls to local retailers and begging my parents to take me out shopping because I just knew they secretly had it in stock but just wouldn’t admit it on the phone.

When the game finally did ship, I barely believed it. I also didn’t have any cash to buy it with, because what the heck does a 13-year-old know about managing money? Thankfully, a friend grabbed a copy and a few days later came over to show it off.

“Can I borrow this?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Bring it back to me at school next week.”

Alas, I forgot. Forgot, with little fake quote marks around the word forgot. And the week after that was the beginning of Christmas break. He was annoyed, but we lived about half a mile apart, so I promised to walk it over to his place sometime. Tragically, I “forgot”… again. Somehow, mysteriously. I figured I’d take it back his way once I finished the game, but I kept getting stuck, because Zelda II is not really a game that lends itself to rapid completion on a fresh playthrough. So I kept putting it off, convinced I’d make a breakthrough that never actually came. Not even with the help of Nintendo Power.

Once school started back up in January, he was visibly annoyed at me when I didn’t bring back the cartridge the first day back in classes. I apologized profusely… and then quietly asked around to some friends who also had the game how I was supposed to get to the last dungeon. I could get there, but the shield wouldn’t drop. They pointed me to the final Heart Container I was missing, which proved to be the final key to the dungeon. I spent the next two nights at home sweating through the final dungeon, the ceaselessly brutal Great Palace, the maddeningly unfair Phoenix/Dark Link fight.

Thankfully, my Rain Man powers — tremendous video game skill, poor social grace — came to the rescue. I watched the credits roll… and the Second Quest began. I felt an evil little twinge in my heart and considered hanging on to the game long enough to complete Zelda II twice over, but the last vestiges of good in my soul rallied to stomp out that urge. “You’ve already pushed it way beyond the limits,” it warned me. “This ends now.”

So, reluctantly, yet beneath a suffocating blanket of guilt, I handed over the game the next morning. And I had to decency never to ask to borrow another game from him.

‘Tis the season?

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The 12 games of Christmas: #12 – The 3rd Birthday

Hi. I thought it might make for a moderately entertaining writing exercise if I were to jot down some quick thoughts on games that have strong seasonal/holiday associations for me over the next couple of weeks. And to do it via an oblique reference to The 12 Days of Christmas. Yes, I know, there’s not a single original idea left in my brain. But I don’t do enough writing for my own amusement these days. So suck it up, or just don’t read ‘em.

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12. The 3rd Birthday (2010)

When Square Enix announced they would be making a third game in the Parasite Eve series (even if they didn’t use the name “Parasite Eve,” presumably due to rights issues with the original novel), I was pretty stoked. The franchise had been absent the better part of a decade, but I really enjoyed the first entry in the series and was naive enough to believe this might be a return to form. Even more exciting was when I watched the trailer roll at 2008’s DKΣ3713 event and saw the news that The 3rd Birthday would be making the jump from mobile to PlayStation Portable. Finally, I thought. This is it.

So, when the game shipped in Japan in December 2010, I had an import copy rush-delivered to the place where I was staying for the holidays. This was, in hindsight, really quite unnecessary. But how was I to know? I mean, yes, there had been warning signs — the unnerving interviews that went into extensive detail about how heroine Aya Brea’s clothing would disintegrate in the heat of combat. Yeah, OK, voyeurism had always been woven into the fabric of Parasite Eve… but maybe this was taking things about three steps too far.

Still, by 2010 I think we’d all come to accept that a lot of Japanese publishers had decided they needed to double down on the pandering in order to survive. So we sucked it up and hoped the underlying game was still good.

And it was good, actually. Director Hajime Tabata’s love for portable gaming and interesting in Western action games gave The 3rd Birthday a surprising edge that helped make up for the sleazy vibe created by Aya moaning in pain (?) as her clothes shredded themselves to ribbons. That edge was undercut slightly by the game’s refusal to simply abandon the RPG conceit altogether, which caused what could have been a pretty solid twitch shooter to settle in as something more muddled and less accomplished, with automated targeting and tedious, stat-based damage mechanics. But then you had the “jump” mechanics that allowed you to send Aya’s consciousness into other combatants or even into monsters to “overload” them, and that was pretty interesting.

But then you found out at the end that “Aya” was actually her preteen sister Maya, who had switched consciousness into Aya’s body, which made all the voyeurism super-gross.

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This is actually a message to scenario writer Motomu Toriyama.

Anyway, I remember this arriving on Christmas Eve, and being really eager to give it a go. I also remember spending the following few days dealing with increasing befuddlement about some of the weird and unwanted directions the game had taken. Not the fondest Christmas gaming memory in my brain-o-dex, but definitely a vivid one.

And, all that being said, I’d love to see Tabata take another crack at the series without anyone else’s creative supervision, if only to retcon the worst parts of The 3rd Birthday out of existence. Something tells me a lot of the game’s less successful elements wouldn’t make the cut.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 10 | Down the dolce vita

The other side of Mt. Kolts doesn’t offer many points of interest to choose from. Two or three hours in, FFVI is still very much in “linear” mode as the story’s premise continues to unfold.

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The only point you can travel to here is the Returner hideout — which, if we’re still going with the Star Wars parallels for this one (and we should be!), is basically Yavin IV.

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You have one task here, which is presented in fairly explicit terms by the Returners hanging out and blocking passages: Talk to a guy named Banon. You can wander around a little before doing so, but the base is small and mostly obstructed, and there’s nowhere else to go here but to Banon’s office.

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Banon is a wild-haired old man who relays a healthy amount of exposition despite his unkempt appearance. His monologue brings all the disparate plot elements we’ve seen so far together into a single nexus of party objectives: The Empire is awful and mean, the Returners aren’t particularly happy about that fact, and they hope to capitalize on Terra’s inexplicable resonance with the creature in the ice caverns — an “Esper” — to give themselves a leg up on the bad guys.

Terra (and thus the player) is given a choice of whether or not to help the Returners’ cause.

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The characters give this “choice” some nice lip service, admitting that forcing Terra’s compliance would make them as crappy as the Empire, but in practice it all works out the same. You the player can’t advance the game or go anywhere beyond the ground you’ve already covered unless you commit to the Returners; until you join the cause, all you can do is wander sadly through the world as a lonely Terra. While it might be interesting if you could make an active choice here and potentially march off to join the Imperial cause, that’s not really how Final Fantasy rolls. (Or should I say, “roles”? No, never mind.)

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That being said, your decision here does count for something. Banon gives you a gift — a Relic — once you join his team. If you say “no” several times before acceding to the cause, you’ll receive a precious Genji Glove, which lets you dual-wield single-handed weapons. Sadly, I didn’t say “no” enough and only received the lesser reward, a Gauntlet, which does the opposite: It allows you to wield a single weapon in both hands for extra strength. But that’s OK, too: If you give a character a Gauntlet and a Knight’s Code, they essentially become a classic Final Fantasy Knight-class warrior. As I mentioned before, Relics represent about one-half of the game’s Job System substitute.

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Whatever choice you make, narrative convenience asserts itself and this messenger collapses in the Returner hideout to announce that South Figaro has fallen to the Empire. Almost as though the city had a traitor in its midst. If only someone had caught wise to their plan….

At this point, the party divides up: Terra, Banon, and Edgar head back to Narshe to meet with the Returners there and hang out with the Esper, while Locke scurries off to run interference in South Figaro and hinder the Empire’s inevitable assault on Figaro Castle (and Narshe). This has the side effect of Locke leaving the party, which incidentally opens up a slot for a new companion to join…

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Locke leaves the scene, and the game continues to follow Terra’s tale, further cementing the idea that she’s the main character of the piece. The party now consists of her, Edgar, Sabin, and new arrival Banon. You’ll notice that there was no rename prompt for Banon; he’s in the party, but he’s not a true member, taking part only in this portion of the game.

Before we discuss Banon, though, it’s worth looking at Sabin’s Blitz skill, to which we were so indelicately introduced at the end of the Mt. Kolts excursion. While Sabin’s Monk class is the first “standard” Final Fantasy character class we’ve seen in FFVI, his actual skill set is a decidedly unconventional take on the role. The Monks we’ve seen in previous games were defined by their raw physical power and inability to equip heavy armor or traditional weapons, which is largely true of Sabin as well. His weapon choices are largely limited to the Claws Yang used in FFIV… though unlike Yang’s Claws, Sabin’s tend to add to his attack power rather than simply adding an elemental or status modifier to his attacks.

But Blitz bears very little resemblance to Monk skills of yore. In previous games, the class’ special traits consisted of passive modifiers and buffs: The ability to double attack power at the expense of defense or vice versa, or simply stat modifiers that boosted that character’s health. Blitz’s, however, mostly consist of various special attacks, largely directed at single targets.

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Raging Fist, for instance, allows Sabin to launch a vicious physical attack against a single foe. Aura Cannon lets you blast a single foe with a holy-element beam. Rising Phoenix hits the entire enemy party with a fire-based attack. All handy, but the only skill in the entire Blitz repertoire similar to those of FFV‘s Monk class is Chakra, which raises another party member’s HP to whatever Sabin’s current HP is. While powerful and free (in terms of mana cost), Sabin’s Blitzes have downsides; many of them are based not on his physical power but rather his spirit (magic) stat, which is terrible by default. Many of them hit only a single target, and in most cases this target is selected at random. That makes some skills practically useless in certain situations; for example, Meteor Strike doesn’t have any effect against certain foes (e.g. flying enemies), and there’s a chance the game could randomly select a null target like that if one is present in a battle.

The biggest drawback has to do with the way Blitzes are input, though. As discussed last time, you execute these actions by punching in memorized sequences of controller commands, similar to fighting game commands. It’s a clever little addition, given the nature of Sabin’s skills (Aura Cannon is essentially a Hadouken and the input is exactly the same), but it doesn’t feel very Final Fantasy-ish. The game can also be rather persnickety about timing these inputs, which can lead to this error message:

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…at the worst possible times. A fumbled input equals a wasted turn for Sabin.

On the other hand, while Sabin’s skills don’t seem to have much to do with the Monk class as it existed before FFVI, he became the template for other Monk-type characters in subsequent games. Tifa, Zell, Amarant, and especially the Monk class in Tactics all use skills patterned around Sabin’s. So there’s that! Still, despite being a fairly amazing character at this early stage in the game, you really have to custom-build Sabin to make him a long-term contender… and given that he’s one of three mandatory characters in the end game, it’s important to understand how the advanced game systems work to maximize his potential. Something the game doesn’t go out of its way to explain, unfortunately.

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Banon, on the other hand, is much easier to explain. His class is listed as Oracle, but his powers don’t really resemble the strange abilities that Oracles in FFV Advance or Tactics command. Since he only appears in this brief sequence on the Lete River and shortly after, his skill set consists of a single ability: Healing the entire party for free. Why have Terra waste her magic points on Cure when Banon can recover the entire party for more HP without cost?

And there’s really no reason not to have Banon use his healing skill on every turn. His physical power is laughable, and more to the point, you’re given a key condition for this raft ride at the very beginning: If Banon dies, it’s game over.

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And since he’s super weak, it doesn’t take much to do him in. Of course, if you paid attention to how row positioning works, you can move him to the back to cut the physical damage he takes in half. This also halves the physical damage he deals, but since he’s basically your healbot, that shouldn’t matter.

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It might be worth mentioning how Game Overs work in FFVI, because loss is handled differently here than in any other Final Fantasy: Namely, there’s no such thing as a Game Over. If your party falls, or you fail to meet a victory condition, you hear a sad little tune and your party leader collapses despondently… and then immediately respawns at the last save point, with all experience you’ve earned since that save point intact.

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This is more a Dragon Quest approach than Final Fantasy but is even more generous than in DQ games, since you don’t lose half your gold for dying. It’s not a bad design choice, but it’s very unconventional in a Final Fantasy game.

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As for the Lete River itself, this entire sequence is the first of several in the game where you have no control over your progress. Your team drifts down the river on the current, encountering random battles as usual but otherwise helpless to act (you can’t even access the menu screen while on the raft). Your only chances for interaction come at a handful of forks with decision points that allow you to pick the direction you’ll advance. Generally, one direction takes you forward, while the other sends you back up the river in a loop (which some people exploit to grind for gold and experience).

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Eventually, you’ll make it far enough downstream to engage the interest of the game’s most memorable recurring boss, a weird octopus named Ultros.

While this fight works as you might expect, Ultros is considerably more powerful than previous bosses. He uses primarily physical attacks, generally hitting the entire party at once for moderate damage — something Banon can easily negate by using his Pray command.

However, he’ll occasionally turn his attention to a specific party member for a focused attack, which almost always hits hard enough to knock that character out of action. You can cheat this by putting the entire party in the back row and using only secondary commands (most of which ignore row modifiers), but even if you play it straight the game still gives you a fighting chance.

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Ultros betrays his intentions with his combat banter, giving a hint of which character he’s about to target. You can act quickly and set this character to defend, which will minimize the damage they take from a single attack.

Also, it’s here we learn that Ultros is a gross pervert.

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This is the message you really don’t want to see, since it means Banon is the next target. And even if you have Phoenix Down with which to revive him, the instant his HP hits zero you lose the fight.

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His chattiness also betrays a certain weakness to fire: If Terra casts Fire on him, he responds with indignation and counterattacks. However, his counter is to squirt ink, which does light damage and potentially inflicts Blind status on Terra. But since spell accuracy isn’t affected by Blind, this doesn’t actually matter. You can keep hitting him with Fire to end the fight rather promptly.

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You don’t really win, however. Ultros simply bails on the fight when he realizes he’s in trouble, and Sabin jumps in after him, only to be flung to parts unknown. Edgar, ever the loving brother, shrugs and heads along the river with the remaining party.

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All of this has been a contrivance to introduce the next game mechanic: The split scenario system. Once again, you have multiple parties to control, but this time it doesn’t work like it did in the battle of the caves at Narshe. You can’t swap between parties here. Instead, you use Mog to pick a party, whose scenario you follow to its conclusion. In previous Final Fantasy games, the secondary scenarios probably would have simply played out in a cut scene, but here you’re given control over both each party and the order in which you experience their tale — adding a neat bit of player agency to what ultimately is an arbitrary narrative direction.

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Almost like a renaissance

Over the past few months, I’ve somehow fallen back into multimedia in a big way. Besides the three video/text features I have going here on the side (Metroidvania, Anatomy of Games, and especially Game Boy World), Retronauts is back for a much-improved new season. I even made a video out of the most recent episode:

And now USgamer has a podcast, too. It’s potentially worth listening to, if you enjoy such things.

I also hosted a one-hour play session with Brandish, as part of my growing addiction to odd RPGs no one likes.

Needless to say, I’m beyond excited for the new SaGa game that will be coming to Vita and selling 20,000 copies.

Anyway, I’m going to go sleep now. I have new scripts written for each of my three video side projects, but since I’ve been suffering from a horrible cold lately I can’t record them. Thus I must rest to hasten my recovery. Damn this frail mortal meat-prison of mine.

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Kirby: Canvas Curse

Ah, here we go. I’ve heard more DS fans cite Kirby: Canvas Curse as the game that made them fans than perhaps any other release for the system. And well it should have. With this release, the system finally arrived.

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It wouldn’t be fair to say Canvas Curse was the first DS game that could only have been done on that system — it was preceded by the likes of Feel the Magic and Zoo Keeper, both of which revolved around their touch screen mechanics. What set Kirby’s first DS outing apart was the fact that it was much more of a traditional video game than the bite-sized novelties that preceded it. Yoshi Touch & Go was fun, but it felt like it should have been a piece of a much more fully developed product. Canvas Curse, on the other hand, was a full-sized platformer full of action and challenges, one that just happened to play entirely with a stylus.

The idea behind Canvas Curse was pretty simple: Kirby had been transformed from being merely round to being a proper ball, subject to the whims of gravity. The player didn’t control Kirby directly but rather used the stylus to draw ramps for the little guy (the shaky rainbow line in the image above), and he would roll along as Newton’s laws dictated. But you could apply all of those laws here: Not only would he fall in respect to gravity, he’d also accelerate, so if you gave him enough of a downward ramp he’d build sufficient momentum to roll upward if you drew a path at an upward angle. Simple, but brilliant… and sometimes surprisingly tricky, since your rainbow ink came in a limited supply and had to recharge once expended.

It might seem strange that Kirby of all characters would be the one to reveal the true brilliance of the DS, but it makes a kind of sense. HAL has said that Kirby games alternate between traditional platformers and more experimental works, and this was an experimental work that also happened to draw heavily on the traditional platformer side of things. Good timing that the Kirby slated for 2005 happened to be one of the offbeat ones, I suppose, but whether kismet or coincidence it really demonstrated the possibilities inherent in Nintendo’s odd little handheld.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 9 | Martial law

There’s a lot to say about South Figaro, considering it’s a totally optional space in this portion of the game. However much time you spend there, though, all roads will eventually lead you to Mt. Kolts, the path leading to your next story objective: The base of the rebellious Returners. Coincidentally, a new party member happens to be hanging out along the way. It’s a small world.

Although, in fairness, Mt. Kolts makes the world somewhat larger than it has been until this point. Every area you’ve visited to here in Final Fantasy VI — Narshe, its caves, Figaro Castle, its caves, and South Figaro — are places to which you will eventually return. As such, every part of the game you’ve seen until now has an unusual amount of substance and a remarkable number of inaccessible features (such as, for example, pretty much the entirety of Narshe). With Mt. Kolts, however, this is it. Blink and you’ll miss it, because there’s no good reason to come back this way unless you really screw up with some of the one-way transit features within the world.

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The theme of the caves of Mt. Kolts is “martial arts.” Several people in South Figaro mention the fact that local martial arts master Duncan likes to hang out in this area, and that probably accounts for the fact that most of the enemies in the interior portions of this region are kung fu dudes named Zaghrem. An interesting fact about these guys is that — although there’s no way for you to know this without hacking the game’s data — Zaghrems are always under Berserk status. (Though the fact that they have red faces could be meant as a tip-off; berserk status causes party members to become tinted with red.) This means they always use physical attacks rather than any of their special abilities, and they hit harder than their base stats would suggest. In practice, this is completely opaque to the player, though; enemies in this game almost always attack a target at random (one of the factors of the berserk condition), and since you never see any of their alternate techniques, it makes no nevermind anyway.

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The other encounter inside the caves of Mt. Kolts are these mammoths called Gorgias, which use a powerful counterattack to physical strikes. Like Zaghrems, Gorgiases are much more powerful than enemies you’ve faced until this point. If you bought a Knight’s Code in South Figaro, it’ll probably get a workout here at some point or another. But the real point of these enemies is to help reinforce the importance of not just mashing “Attack” over and over again — special abilities like Tools and Magic aren’t simply powerful, they also don’t trigger counters.

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The layout of Mt. Kolts is quite involved, though; in addition to the caves, it also consists of outdoor spaces that you need to traverse in order to advance. This allows the layout of the “dungeon” to be fairly complex without being too confusing; the caverns and hillsides alternate, creating visual variety that makes it much easier to keep track of your progress and not become lost. Compare Mt. Kolts to the previous dungeon, which was much smaller but more confusing due to its monotony. There’s only so much a game with 24Mb of data and so much ground to cover can provide in terms of visual variety, so the designers compensated here by mixing up the layouts between two different tile sets.

Also, a mysterious shadow appears a couple of times, vanishing into the background ahead of you. How strange!

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And the mountain pass really does get intricate: You’ll spot inaccessible chests and out-of-the-way entrances along the route, prompting you to explore as much as possible. You can find the main path through the dungeon easily enough, but when you’re taunted by chests like this, you’re more likely to take the time to poke around for alternate routes and even backtrack if you miss something.

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In the outdoor spaces, you won’t encounter any martial artists; instead, you’ll encounter much more varied creatures with some unique traits. Trilliums, the green-and-purple plants, introduce you to poison status: There’s a one-in-three chance Trilliums will use an attack that causes its target to become poisoned. You’ve potentially seen poison in action against bad guys thanks to Bio Beam and the Bio Blaster, but this is the first time it’s been directed at your party. Poison does the same thing to player characters as to bad guys, but there’s an important difference: It sticks. While poison basically just helps you kill bad guys faster, it’s a long-term irritant when used against you. Poison doesn’t disappear at the end of a battle, and any affected character will continue to have their health sapped as they walk outside of battle until you use an Antidote or Terra’s Poisona spell.

That’s something worth mentioning: As Terra levels up, she occasionally learns new spells. The first additional spell she gains beyond her starting point is Poisona, which clears up Poison status in one target either in or out of battle. It’s essentially an Antidote, but it operates on Magic Points rather than being a consumable item.

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The enemies in Mt. Kolts’ outdoor areas tend to attack in fairly large numbers, which makes Edgar’s Noiseblaster useful; it inflicts confusion status, which causes enemies to attack one another. Against large groups of enemies, it offers a good, cheap way to minimize the number of attacks they direct toward the party. Edgar’s Auto Crossbow can’t kill the enemies here in a single hit, so it’s better to tie them up attacking one another… which has the double benefit of keeping them from damaging the party while chipping away at their hit points to soften them up for Edgar.

Noiseblaster has another interesting trait: It makes the bird enemies here, Cirpius, more likely to use their special attack Beak, which petrifies its target. Petrification is effectively like instant death: A petrified target is taken out of action, unable to attack or move, and if all members of a party become petrified it’s as good as them all being killed: You win if it happens to the enemy, and game over if it happens to your team. Anyway, when a Ciprius is confused, it’ll frequently use Beak and petrify a fellow enemy, which neatly takes that foe out of the battle for you in a single shot.

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Near the exit from Mt. Kolts, a man stands in your way: The dungeon boss, Vargas.

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This is a different battle than what’s come before, because Vargas himself is untouchable. He sends out a pair of trained bears (Ipoohs) as his frontline fighters, and they create an impenetrable wall between you and him. Physical attacks, magic, Tools, even Steal — it’s all intercepted by the Ipoohs.

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Well, the Ipoohs aren’t entirely impenetrable. Vargas has no trouble blasting your party despite the meat wall standing in front of him. His physical strikes have plenty of power, but his Gale Strike is especially devastating; it hits all three of your party members to devastating effect. But you can’t do anything about it until both Ipoohs are down.

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Thankfully, they take arrows quite well. Being boss-class characters, though, they’re immune to basically every kind of status effect (a standard state of affairs for bosses in RPGs not developed by Atlus), so you can’t do anything devious like Noiseblaster them to get them to turn on Vargas.

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Once you have a clear shot at Vargas, you can dogpile him as you like. After he absorbs a few hundred hit points of damage, a cut scene begins. The mysterious shadow appears in the flesh, and — again, small game world — it turns out to be Edgar’s brother Sabin. This is what the hint about Edgar looking like Duncan’s pupil was about.

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At this point, Vargas uses his Gale Strike to blast everyone but Sabin out of the party — in the middle of the fight, your playable team completely changes and you’re controlling a character you’ve never used before. That’s pretty bold! Unfortunately, this gambit isn’t pulled off quite as smoothly as it should be.

Incidentally, the trick Vargas pulls off here (blowing party members permanently out of combat) is something a number of enemies can perform throughout the game. It’s presented as a plot event here, but it actually is your first glimpse of one of the more devious mechanics you’ll face in FFVI.

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Once Sabin and Vargas face off mano a mano, your foe immediately uses a special technique called Doom Fist which initiates a one-minute timer for Sabin. This is one minute he has to defeat Vargas; when the countdown hits zero, Sabin dies. Vargas is pretty tough and you probably couldn’t beat him in a straight fight (he has a ton of hit points), but it’s a moot point because there’s no way to grind down his health before Doom Fist takes out Sabin. And since you’ve been reduced to a single party member, once he dies, it’s game over.

So what’s the secret to victory? You need to read dialogue cues to figure it out. Vargas is bitter because he thinks Duncan selected Sabin as the heir to his school of martial arts rather than his own son (that would be Vargas). So the secret is to use Sabin’s techniques versus Vargas’.

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At the moment, Sabin knows two skills: Aurablast and Raging Fist. Aurablast is basically a Street Fighter hadouken… literally. Blitz attacks aren’t typical RPG command selections where you pick an action from a menu and it happens. Instead, you choose Blitz, input a button combination, and then press select to execute the command. If you blow it, you waste a turn. If you perform the inputs correctly, though, you’ll perform a powerful martial arts move for no cost.

Aurablast uses a hadouken command: Down, down-forward, forward. However, that won’t do anything for you. It’ll hurt Vargas, but not enough to win the fight.

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Instead, you need to use the technique Raging Fist (forward, backward, forward). This actually hits for less damage than Aurablast, but it destroy’s Vargas right in his self-esteem. Devastated that dear ol’ dad taught Sabin this move but not Vargas, he crumbles and you instantly win the battle.

OK, cool. Dramatic intro to a new character, and an interesting way to introduce a new mechanic. Unfortunately, Square sort of bungles it here. This is an opaque, unintuitive conclusion to the battle; even if you take out the Ipoohs and Vargas perfectly, the second phase of the fight can cause you to lose simply for not knowing what to do or how to perform an action that isn’t explained, demonstrated, or presented in-game until your time has almost run out.

Not only that, it represents the first-ever change of input modality in a Final Fantasy game. Until this point, not only FFVI but the franchise as a whole has operated through menu-based actions. Blitzes, however, work with fighting game button combos. This is not explained in-game until Doom Fist runs down to around 20 seconds. Even then, it’s hard to intuit the precise method of using Blitzes, including the fact that you finish them off with an unprompted press of the confirmation button. You reach a story point in a boss fight that expects you to perform an unknown action in a style you’ve never seen before, at which point you’re expected to figure out how this new command technique works with enough time for two or three before your timer runs out. Frankly, it sucks.

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On the other hand, victory results in Sabin joining your party. Finally, a traditional Final Fantasy class! Whose class skills are deeply unconventional. No status quo for this Final Fantasy, thank you.

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Pac-Pix

In the DS retrospective I helped coordinate for USgamer last week, a lot of people cited Kirby: Canvas Curse as the game that finally turned them on to the system. That is not a wrong or bad response! However, it does make me a little sad, because it means poor Pac-Pix gets short shrift. Just like it did back then.

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I suppose that treatment isn’t entirely unwarranted. Pac-Pix was a neat little game, but it lacked rather significantly in terms of actual substance. Like Yoshi Touch & Go, it felt an awful lot like a brilliant idea that hadn’t been properly baked — like it should have been a minigame in a more proper release. There was a real sense of “tech demo” about early DS games such as this, the sensation that the R&D team goofed around for a while until they came up with something they wanted to flesh into a full game experience only to have a manager come along and growl, “Ship it!” to hit those early release deadlines and make it onto shelves in those barren early days of the platform.

OK, but let’s look at the game itself. That’s a pretty weird looking Pac-Man in the screen shot, right? Yeah. That’s because Pac-Man only exists in this game when you draw him, so he looks all lumpy and misshapen even in the best artist’s hands because the DS stylus is not exactly a precision instrument… and, also, because you’re doodling him quickly under pressure, trying to avoid ghostly hazards.

It’s a weird concept, but it was novel. I mean, there had been Magic Pengel for PS2 a couple of years prior, so the idea of drawing something and it coming to life (a concept later to become the rather on-the-nose title of a game, Drawn to Life) wasn’t entirely unheard of. But Pac-Pix applied that idea in a way that made intuitive sense; of course you could draw on a touch screen. Of course it would cause your illustration to take on a life of its own, however hideously malformed you happened to draw poor Pac-Man.

Pac-Pix sits squarely in the same territory as Treasure’s Stretch Panic or any number of Wii early waggle games: A sharp idea that didn’t quite clear the barrier between “demo” and “full game.” But it had enough charm, and offered enough of an epiphany, that you can almost forgive it for its lack of substance.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 8 | Anatomy of a town

Once you get to South Figaro, you can…

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…skip right past it, as a matter of fact. For the moment, nothing in the city is mandatory; in fact, you don’t even need to stop there at all once you complete the cave linking the city to Figaro Castle (or at least its former resting spot in the desert). By why wouldn’t you? At this point in the game, South Figaro is simply a resting point where you can recover from the journey and stock up for the future. Plus, it’s conveniently located between the cave you’ve just completed and the caves you’re about to explore.

So while you can head on to the destination shown above, the layout of the world map shows that the game designers clearly want you to stop in and see what’s hopping in South Figaro.

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And here’s the first thing that’s happening, aside from the obvious future party member who totally blows you off for now: The first proper equipment shop of the game. This is actually pretty weird. Most RPGs let you go shopping within minutes of initiating the story; in fact, a properly old-school RPG makes a trip to the store your first task once you finish talking to the king/mayor/regent/whatever; dude gives you a mission and a pittance of gold and lets you buy gear.

Not so in Final Fantasy VI. The starter gear each character entered the game with has served you in good stead until this point, and it’s only now that you’re moving on to more challenging scenarios that you need to upgrade your equipment. This actually makes good sense from a narrative standpoint; what kind of sad sack adventurer begins an epic quest with no gear whatsoever? Locke and Edgar had a sense that they were heading into action, and Terra was presumably kitted out by the Empire, so why would you need to blow cash right away on gear?

However, the downside of this is that you went to the shop in Figaro Castle — the only that sold only tools for Edgar — without knowing about some of the helpful iconography of FFVI‘s shopping interface. (Unless, of course, you stopped in the tutorial rooms outside Narshe… but that was a lot of information being firehosed at you, and it’s easy to forget or overlook small details until you see them in action.) So it’s not until here that you’ll probably appreciate one of FFVI’s nicest innovations: When you go shopping, you can see every party member and get a sense of not only who can equip a specific piece of gear, but whether or not it represents an upgrade.

When an item is compatible with a specific character, that character’s sprite raises his or her arms. The relative effectiveness of a new item is denoted with a small icon: A green arrow (pointing upward) means it’s an improvement, a red arrow (pointing downward) means it’s weaker than your current gear, an equal sign means it’s a wash, and an E means it’s already equipped. This is a simple, brilliant way of making transparent something that traditionally was a confusing, unintuitive mess in RPGs, and any post-FFVI that didn’t or doesn’t adopt a similar system deserves to be kicked in the pants.

This system isn’t perfect. The relative stat indicators are based on the item’s most fundamental stat — Attack Power for weapons, Defense Power for armor. It doesn’t account, for example, for a sword that boosts its user Magic Power stat, or for a breastplate that improves your Evasion stat. It’s always a good idea to do a granular comparison by item. Especially if you come to a new shop and find a weirdly expensive piece of gear that nevertheless has a red arrow icon. There’s probably some sort of special trait to it that doesn’t factor in to the icon calculations — a fact the game doesn’t really explain.

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The other new kind of shop in South Figaro — and this is a doozy — is the Relic Shop. Let’s look at Relics, shall we?

Final Fantasy VI dispenses with the Job System of FFIII and FFV, but unlike FFIV it doesn’t lock your characters into a single, fixed class. Instead, it splits the difference; each party member has his or her own specific, assigned class, and that class comes with a set skill (Edgar’s Tool, Locke’s Steal, and Terra’s Magic — well, seemingly Magic for now, though sharp-eyed players may have noticed that Magic occupies a different action menu slot than the other heroes’ class skills). This never changes, even after many class skills have been rendered obsolete in the late game.

However, FFVI dives head-first into the idea of character customization through two different mechanics. One of those won’t become available until you’ve traveled a fair distance into the game, but other becomes properly available here: Relics.

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Relics look like standard equipment, but there’s an entirely separate menu slot dedicated to equipping them. In other RPGs, these might be designated in the accessory slot, but while Relics do often confer the same sort of boosts and buffs that traditional RPG accessories do (a stat bonus here, a status immunity here) many Relics can completely change the nature of your character. In short, with the proper combination of Relics, you can effectively grant characters a subclass.

You get the first proper taste of that here. The Relics available in South Figaro mostly offer passive bonuses: Silver Spectacles prevent Blind status, Sprint Shoes allow you to move twice as quickly while exploring (moot in this remake, where you can sprint by default), and so forth. However, the Knight’s Code does something completely different; rather than buffing your stats, it instead gives you permanent “Cover” status.

Final Fantasy veterans would immediately recognize Cover as a trait of the Knight class, beginning with FFIII. Even Americans in the ’90s, who missed out on FFIII and FFV, would have known it: Cecil gained the ability once he became a Paladin in FFIV. By equipping a Knight’s Code, that character will always jump in to take a physical hit for any other character in critical status, preventing the critical character from dying while absorbing the damage with a defensive bonus. So, with a Knight’s Code, a character gains a key trait of a Knight, even if they can’t become a Knight in the literal Job sense.

A few plot points from South Figaro, you can potentially acquire a second relic called a Gauntlet, which allows a character to wield a weapon with two hands for extra attack power (though of course without the defensive and evasion perks of a shield, which can no longer be held in the off hand). By putting both a Knight’s Code and a Gauntlet on a single character, you’ve effectively created a Knight. It’s not the Job System, as you don’t level up your Relics through use, but it’s an attempt to provide a similar sort of flexibility.

While the game doesn’t explain the Job connection directly, it does once again trot out a Moogle to explain the mechanic so there’s no chance of you failing to understand this equipment’s importance.

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Besides capitalism, the other role South Figaro plays at this point is expository. You can wander through the (surprisingly large) town, chatting with citizens to get a sense of the world beyond the limited view you’ve seen so far. While much of it has to do with the omnipresent threat that the Empire poses, you also get some local color; apparently a martial artist named Duncan is a big deal.

It’s not clear from this dialogue box, but this is meant to be directed specifically at Edgar — a hint for an upcoming plot twist, though one that unfortunately makes sense only in hindsight.

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Mouthy kids giving away the big plot twist after that one.

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Clearly the citizens of South Figaro are all quite upstanding. This, as it happens, is a bit of eavesdropping you do in the home of the city’s richest man. Evidently simply being the wealthiest man in town isn’t enough for the guy and he’s trading state secrets. Or is it that he’s the wealthiest man because he’s trading state secrets?

In any case, Edgar seems oddly silent on what is clearly a matter of border security.

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Although it’s currently optional, poking around through the streets, shops, and homes of South Figaro is the first chance you’ve had to really roam freely in FFVI. Everything up until now has been blocked off, locked away, or otherwise pushing you inexorably forward. Here is an entirely discretionary location filled with dozens of people with information and tips to relay; it’s a chance to dabble in some world-building, to establish some context for the adventure ahead.

You can also stumble across sights like the room above. It seems innocuous enough at first glance, but armed with hindsight of having experienced the game, a returning player knows the more ominous role this room will play. You’ll be revisiting South Figaro in the course of the game (and really, not too far out), and the fact that you can poke around in places that have a crucial story role while they’re still in a blank, neutral state is pretty cool. Usually games lock you out of plot-specific locations until they become relevant, or else the first time you visit a place is the only time it is relevant. FFVI‘s team put in a little extra effort to render this city in multiple states, and the game world is richer for it in a way that few people will even consciously notice.

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Meteos

So, actually, I don’t honestly like Meteos all that much. It was stylish and kind of fun, but it never really grabbed me. It’s a matching puzzle game with this really weird blast-off mechanic, which makes for a lively and energetic puzzler but not one, I’m afraid, that I find particularly engaging.

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I do have fond feelings for Meteos, though. Or rather, surrounding Meteos, if not for the game itself. For one thing, weirdly enough, it was one of the first games (perhaps the first) to convince the cynics I knew to maybe give DS a fair chance. Why? Because it had Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s name attached to it: He of Space Channel 5 and (more to the point) Rez fame. And with those colors and grids and spacey effects, you can kind of see where people might draw a line between Rez and Meteos and think, “Yes! Mizuguchi is here to save the day and bring legitimacy to this benighted platform!”

Of course, in the end it was just a hyperactive puzzle game. But it caused DS critics to think more positively about the system, which was a hell of a task at the time… not that the opinion of any of us creeps in the games press mattered in the end, given the nature of the games that ultimately caused the system to rise to the heights of the sales charts.

On an extremely personal note, though, Meteos has a fuzzy little warm spot in my heart simply because it gave me my first chance to rub elbows with a “superstar” game designer. Mizuguchi came by the Ziff-Davis offices to promote the game and do some interviews, and the higher-ups took him to lunch at the restaurant downstairs. For some reason, I was invited to tag along… I suppose as a “hey, that dude at our website likes DS games and games from Japan, we should bring him.” I was still pretty fresh from being some jackass nobody with a blog (as opposed to what I am today, a jackass slightly-less-nobody with a blog and a podcast), so it was all very exciting.

Mizuguchi was, not surprisingly, super chill, and very friendly. Even to a jackass nobody like me. Despite that, I’m still not in love with this game — despite what dark conspiracy theories about ethics in games journalism might have you believe — but it’s a nice memory.

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Mr. Driller Drill Spirits

Sometimes, a game doesn’t really make sense to you until years later. Such is the case with Mr. Driller: Drill Spirits, an early third-party release for Nintendo DS.

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I mean, I got the game back then, sure. Namco had a pretty steady assembly line going for Driller games, having produced… what, two? Three? on Game Boy Advance, and DS made a logical home for the next entry. Better than logical — ostensibly perfect. You don’t see it in this image, because a full view would have been so tall as to be disruptive to the reading experience, but the action in Drill Spirits spanned both screens. That’s a totally fantastic design choice for a game where you’re moving downward constantly through a vertical well, even if it was mostly for show; the real action took place on the bottom screen, so the extra info on the upper screen mainly served to clue you in to imminent danger when you drilled too enthusiastically and caused a chain reaction of falling blocks. In other Driller games, those blocks often begin to plummet well out of sight, but here you have extra warning.

That’s not a bad feature, but it only goes so far, and it couldn’t make up for the fact that Drill Spirits, content-wise, was horribly anemic. I couldn’t help but compare the game to Mr. Driller: Drill Land, the amazing 2002 GameCube release and still the absolute high point of the series which — because life isn’t fair — never came to the U.S. Drill Land became a minor fixture when I first moved to San Francisco to work at 1UP. We’d play it both at home and at the office, and it was brilliant, with a ton of extra modes that expanded the series’ core gameplay well beyond its standard bounds.

Drill Spirits pared the design down to the basic arcade mode, reminiscent of the original Mr. Driller but with more characters to choose from. Compared to Drill Land and even Mr. Driller Ace — another Japan-exclusive title, maddeningly — it just came off as regressive. It felt almost like we were being taunted here in the U.S.: The really good Driller games remained stranded in Japan for no clear reason, while we got the good-but-not-awesome ones. Of course, that’s not how corporations do business, but I’m speaking from the heart here.

Anyway, I don’t remember how I scored Drill Spirits on 1UP. Probably harshly. I vaguely recall reviewing it for GMR, too, but maybe not. If I did, I probably came off as being pretty pissy in that review, too.

It wasn’t until years later that I finally got what Drill Spirits was all about. I downloaded Mr. Driller for iPhone and tapped my way through the conversion, and suddenly it dawned on me: Drill Spirits was a practice run for the touchscreen future. It included an optional control scheme that allowed you to control Susumu (or whichever protagonist you settled on) with the stylus, though it also offered the D-pad as a fallback. That knowledge and experience eventually allowed Namco’s designers to roll right on into converting the game to iPhone. This was future-proofing, basically.

Or not. The series is long dead at this point, and the final entry in the series — Mr. Driller: Drill ‘Til You Drop for DSiWare — not only completely obviates the need to ever play Drill Spirits, it was also cited by producer Hideo Yoshizawa as the definitive Driller adventure when I interviewed him a few years ago. So, basically, this game is completely pointless. Not terrible or anything… just utterly moot.

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