The way we was

Due to the fact that a bunch of people seem irritated by my decision to unite GameSpite and Anatomy of Games (mainly for reasons of indices, it seems), I’ve shrugged and given into the inevitable entropy of all things, separating Anatomy of Games once again into its own site. Which means poor GameSpite will probably never be updated again, the way things have been going lately. Well, we had a good 16-year run, this website. Farewell.

As it happens, there’s a new Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI entry to enjoy thereabouts this morning. And also another announcement. Wow, it all sounds so momentous when I phrase it like that, and not at all like a website about picking apart the design of old video games.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 14 | Dive alert

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Sabin’s chapter is surprisingly lengthy. Even after teaming up with Shadow, sneaking through an Imperial base, fighting through Doma Castle, and undermining the supernatural order of the human race’s afterlife, there’s still more to do.

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Shadow won’t take part in it, however; if you’ve managed to hang on to him to this point, here’s where he’ll part ways. Apparently a journey by train into the underworld was cool, but a leap from a waterfall is where he draws the line.

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And no wonder: This leg of the journey consists of Sabin and Cyan plummeting thousands of meters in freefall next to waterfall as freakish monster fish take a moment from laddering their way back up to their freakish monster spawning pools in order to attack.

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It’s all capped off with an obligatory boss battle, though this one feels a little perfunctory; it’s just a more difficult, more purple version of the other freakish monster fish.

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Once again, Sabin finds himself washed ashore, unconscious, where a new party members awaits. Other characters find allies through hard work and learning to share a common objective; Sabin drowns his way into them.

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It’s Gau (or Wicket, if you prefer), and his special technique is as potentially valuable as Cyan’s is inevitably lame. But you have to earn Gau’s techniques, every step of the way.

Sabin and Cyan have washed up in an isolated region of the world called the Veldt. In the real world, you’ll find veldt in Africa, but in FFVI it seems more like a pastiche of Australia. Not only is it shut off from the rest of the world, it also contains all the most horrible creatures on the planet.

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The Veldt’s sole outpost of habitation comes in the form of a town named Mobliz, which has a bustling trade primarily in courier pigeons that connect the village to the larger world. Internet isn’t really a thing here, so news, rumor, and innuendo are all essentially the same for the inhabitants of Mobliz. The citizens’ musings about the outbreak of war abroad help convey the fact that the Empire, while far-reaching, hasn’t completely conquered the world yet. They also set into motion a small little side event — it’s too small to properly call a quest — that gives Cyan some additional character development far in the future.

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You can volunteer to help this wounded soldier write to his sweetheart Lola if you like. There’s no obvious benefit to it, but who wouldn’t want to act from a place of compassion?

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The most important thing about Mobliz is the fact that the Item Shop sells a new consumable good: Dried Meat. It heals a modest amount of hit points — more than Potions, which already are growing woefully underpowered by this point — but more importantly, it functions as food.

Interestingly, Gau appears in the purchase/equipment window despite not being in the party. By now the fact that you could name him should clue you into the fact that he’s a future party member, but seeing his sprite active and potentially benefiting from certain gear purchases you can make in Mobliz gives a stronger cue: He’ll be joining soon.

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Someone in Mobliz mentions the fact that there’s only one way to escape from this region, by water, and that the necessary equipment for doing so has long since vanished. For the moment, this means all Sabin and Cyan can do is wander around the Veldt, fighting a motley assortment of monsters.

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However, after a random number of battles (but generally just a couple), Gau will show up once all the monsters have been destroyed and complain about being hungry. If you attack him, he’ll get angry and vanish for a few battles, only to show up again. Of course, his rumbly tummy is your clue here: Gau wants food. Being a cool dude who’s beaten The Legend of Zelda, the solution should be obvious for you: Buy some Dried Meat and feed it to (i.e. use it on) Gau. He’ll join the party and add his not-inconsiderable talents to the mix.

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Much like Street Fighter‘s Blanka, Gau is a wild child who was abandoned as an infant and learned to live as the animals. In mechanical terms, this means he can use monster abilities. His Rage command is probably the most complex character skill in all of FFVI, but it’s incredibly versatile: Once you select Rage, you’re allowed to pick which Rage you want to use from a menu of abilities he’s learned. Like Mog, he’ll then enter a berserk state, using random abilities from the selected Rage until he’s slain or battle ends. In a given battle, he has two abilities to choose from for his current Rage, but where Mog can learn eight dances Gau can learn more than a hundred different Rages.

In practice, this makes Gau something of a hybrid of Final Fantasy VI classes: Berserker, Beast Master, and Blue Mage. The Rages Gau can access consist of skill sets tied to a specific monster — for instance…

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…if you learn to attack like Magitek Armor, Gau will randomly use skills specific to that enemy, such as Magitek Laser. But Gau sometimes gains special powers that those enemies don’t demonstrate; the Stray Cat Rage is always highly popular for the way it gives Gau access to some insanely deadly abilities early on.

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Actually learning the abilities, however, can be tricky and requires a fair amount of grinding. The unique property of the Veldt is that every non-boss enemy you encounter in the game can appear in random encounter formations. When on the Veldt, Gau gains the Leap command, allowing him to fling himself into a pack of foes. This ends the battle immediately, temporarily removing Gau from the party.

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After a few more random encounters, he’ll reappear at the end of the fight, automatically rejoining the team after a moment. Upon his return, however, he’ll have added Rages for all the monsters in the bookend encounters to his repertoire: The monsters he leapt into, and the monsters he resurfaced with. Those become permanent additions to his arsenal of Rages; by the end of the game, if you take the time to train on the Veldt every once in a while, Gau has by far the broadest skill set of any party member. Not all Rages are created equal, and there are plenty you’ll never want to touch. But some can be situationally invaluable, while others can carry you through to the end of the game.

This is all fairly complicated, so Kappa returns to explain Rages in detail. Even so, there are factors that Kappa doesn’t explain. For example, Gau’s Rages don’t just lend him new powers — they also buff or afflict him with that enemy’s special traits. For example, the Magitek Armor Rage gives Gau Protect status for as long as that Rage lasts, protecting him from physical damage… but it also gives him vulnerability to lightning. When you Rage a flying enemy’s skills, Gau gains float status and an invulnerability to Earth elemental attacks.

And status effects obey their usual rules, too. Protect only lasts until the end of the fight, but Float is a “permanent” status and will continue after the battle ends. This can be handy in certain situations. And in any case, it makes Gau a powerful (if sometimes unpredictable) ally; many enemy elemental skills don’t count as Magic and therefore can’t be nulled by Celes’ Runic ability, giving you a potential “magic” backdoor against various magic-slinging enemies. The strategic possibilities of Rage are enormous, but the game doesn’t give you much guidance on how to use them, leaving you to sort out the specifics of each Rage and the secret benefits of the technique for yourself.

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Story-wise, Gau is essential to the party’s progress because he alone knows where the sole diving helmet belonging to Mobliz has been hidden. Once the party ventures to Mt. Crescent to the south of the Veldt, Gau will dig up the helmet, allowing the party to travel the Serpent Trench between Mobliz and Nikeah (a seeming nod to Serpent Road in Final Fantasy IV) — though how three people get about undersea with only a single diving helmet between them is one of those little plot details that you’re probably better off not investigating too carefully.

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This plays out like an undersea version of the Lete River, with the party zooming along through an impressive-once-upon-a-time Mode 7 view of the ocean floor and occasionally picking a route, some of which loop back.

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Enemies in this area are, fittingly, aquatic in nature. They’re fairly easy to trounce, but you have to proceed with caution as the tiny jellyfish foes, Aspirans, have a counterattack called Gigavolt that can and will kill a party member in a single blow. Since you can’t access the party menu to heal up between battles in the Serpent Trench — the automatic forward motion negates that — this can be extremely dangerous, potentially putting you at a massive disadvantage when you enter a battle with a party member or two dead. You can avoid Gigavolt by taking care to use only basic attack commands, but by this point you’ve probably long since learned to use special techniques…

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This is a chance for Gau to shine, though his potential here is something you have to figure out on your own. If you choose a Rage that grants Gau lightning immunity (or even absorption), he can pummel any Aspirans you encounter with impunity and soak up their electrical counterattacks. This goes a long way toward keeping you alive until you automatically reach Nikeah. Speaking of which…

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You’ve got to be kidding me.

No new party member shows up this time, though, so that’s different, at least.

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Nikeah, too, is isolated from the rest of the world, not unlike Mobliz. Unlike, Mobliz, they have discovered the fun technology known as “boats,” and a ferry here will take you back to Figaro.

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But not before a woman who evidently thinks of her breasts as giant sentient eggs from a nursery rhyme comes on to Cyan, much to his indignation. And then, there’s nowhere to go but back to Narshe, along with the rest of the team, bringing this extremely lengthy portion of the game to its close.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 13 | Triple triad (part the third)

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With the introduction of Cyan comes a weird new special command: Bushido (formerly SwdTech). It’s almost really interesting as a command, but it suffers from a deep flaw that renders it largely useless — or, at the very least, ensures you’ll never make use of its advanced permutations. Weirdly enough, the otherwise dreadful iOS port of FFVI changes the workings of Bushido with a single, small tweak that makes it massively more valuable. In its vanilla permutation, however, it’s largely a waste of time.

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The problem with Bushido is that it preempts the rest of the game. Once you choose the menu command, a new action meter pops up, slowly advancing from 1 to 8. Press the input button again and the currently highlighted number becomes Cyan’s command; each number represents a different sword technique for him to execute.

For example: Bushido level 1 yields you Fang (formerly Dispatch). This action is a single powerful sword strike that you can basically execute immediately; it’s a single button press more complicated than the basic Attack command, yet works out to be far more powerful, especially in the early game.

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Bushido level 2 gives you Sky (aka Retort), which places Cyan into a defensive state from which he will perform a counterstrike against any enemy that hits him with a physical strike.

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This counterblow is even more powerful than Fang. Higher Bushido levels yield instant death attacks, multiple strikes, status effects, and more.

The problem is that while Cyan’s Bushido meter is filling, so is every other meter. Your party continues to accumulate ATB charges, and so do enemies. Unfortunately, since the Bushido meter dominates the command interface, you can’t give any other party members commands while it’s active. Your enemies, of course, have no such limitations; they’ll continue to attack with impunity while you’re tied up with Cyan.

To FFVI‘s credit, though, it does a nice job of introducing you to this new skill while at the same time encouraging you not to get hung up in pointless encounters. Cyan leads a counterattack against the Imperial assault on Doma Castle, facing off against groups of soldiers singlehandedly. It’s a great chance to learn about the different abilities offered by Bushido; since Cyan is the only playable character here, the Sky command is super valuable — everyone’s going to target Cyan, meaning lots of opportunities for counters.

However, every enemy here has an extremely high chance of using a final attack: A free action performed as a counter once you land the killing blow, regardless of that enemy’s ATB status. These death attacks hit much harder than standard attacks and quickly wear down Cyan’s health in short order, and they break the rules of the game’s counterattack mechanics: These soldiers can use final attacks even if they die from Cyan’s Sky technique (typically no one in FFVI can counter a counter). So you have a chance to get a handle on Bushido in a fairly safe setting, while at the same time being encouraged to hustle along to finish off this sequence by taking on the boss to prevent Cyan’s health from being worn down completely.

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Meanwhile, your main party has to sneak through an Imperial encampment that’s set up camp in front of a bridge blocking the road to Doma and the world beyond. This is a light stealth section, and you can largely avoid conflict if you follow the dialogue cues and sneak past enemies. Of course, you can also fight your way through the encampment like you just don’t care, too.

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The game rather unsubtly contrasts the two remaining Imperial generals here: General Leo commands the uncompromised respect of his men for his integrity and compassion. Kefka, not so much. But Leo gets called back from the front lines, leaving you to face off against Kefka.

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For a general, he turns out to be less impressive than one might expect, scurrying in retreat as soon as you land a blow on him.

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Kefka manages to throw his underlings in your way long enough to make a break for it and enact the dumbest plot event in the entirety of FFVI: The poisoning of Doma. It’s a tragedy, yes, but it also makes no sense. Kefka poisons the water, which causes everyone in Doma to suddenly drop dead… except, inexplicably, Cyan.

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But, unfortunately, including Cyan’s family.

The idea here is sound — showcase Kefka’s wretchedness once and for all, while giving the party a new ally with a profound motivation for hating the Empire — but it’s borderline nonsensical. The way Cyan’s son flops out of bed just makes the whole thing seem goofy, too. This is one of those cases where Square’s designers really needed more than the Super NES could offer in order to express their ideas….

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Nevertheless, this does lead in to the most intense character recruitment in the game: Cyan goes full on berserker, fighting the entire Imperial camp on his own, leaving Sabin (and, optionally, Shadow) to sit in as more or less bystanders to the event who mostly offer moral support. Eventually, Cyan begins to wear out and accepts the other men’s help, and they all scramble into Magitek armor.

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All three men, of course, only have access to the basic functions that were available to Biggs and Wedge. Terra’s enhanced capabilities are nowhere to be seen, once again reinforcing the fact that she’s basically awesome.

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The road leads to the Phantom Forest, where everything is undead. Observant players may have noticed the holy elemental nature of Aura Cannon; this makes Sabin the star player by far, with Aura Cannon doing ludicrous damage to everything in sight.

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Observant players may also have noticed that the reflective pool here restores your HP and MP, similar to the recovery buckets in Final Fantasy IV though far more elegantly rendered.

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As you continue to venture into new territory during this phase of Final Fantasy VI, the game rather unapologetically railroads you in a specific direction. In this case, like it or not, lunkheaded Sabin wanders into a haunted train because what could possibly go wrong? By and large, this is how FFVI works: It features plenty of nonlinearity, but mainly in the sense of backtracking or revisiting familiar ground. As you push into regions you’ve never explored before, however, the firm hand of Game Design presses at the small of your back to prevent you from wandering off-path.

Not only are you pushed enthusiastically into the Phantom Train whether or not you like it, the subsequent adventure is probably the most literally linear sequence you’ll encounter in the entire game (at least until the Fanatics Tower, I suppose). It’s a train, a dungeon literally on rails.

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But you do get to see a rare treat if Shadow hasn’t abandoned you yet: Even the unflappable ninja warrior has a surprised sprite.

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Even if you’re down to your two core characters Sabin and Cyan here, however, you can still take on the Phantom Train with a full party. The train is populated by character sprites, some of which are enemies as you’d expect… but some are ghosts who will tag along and participate in combat. It’s quite kind of them.

In fact, they’re so kind that they’ll even commit the ultimate sacrifice for the party. A ghost’s special command is Possess, which causes it to self-destruct, taking any target with it but also removing it from the party. You can return to where you recruited the ghost and team up with it anew afterwards, though this isn’t particularly practical if you have to backtrack all the way to the start to find the ghost… and impossible after the point of no return.

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Despite the simplicity of this dungeon’s “design,” the Phantom Train features enough unique events to make it memorable. The setting alone is fairly unique, but then you deal with events like being pursued by a legion of undead who can only be defeated by unfastening the train’s car junctions and leaving the rear cars behind… which presumably damns every soul aboard to eternal damnation or torment or wandering or whatever, since the Phantom Train ferries the dead to the afterlife. Probably best not to think too hard about the theological ramifications.

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You can optionally stop to restore your party’s health in the train’s dining car. You’re given the choice not to do it, which might seem wise — don’t want to go all Persephone here, right? But actually, there are no ill effects, and it’s a nice little character-building scene for the devil-may-care Sabin and skittish, uptight Cyan.

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There’s also a completely useless boss battle against a pompous swordsman who ambushes you, flails about pathetically, and makes off with a treasure. Siegfried’s role or nature is never explained; it’s just a bizarre one-off encounter against a foe whose mere presence makes no sense whatsoever.

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More difficult is the palette-swapped spirit enemy Apparition, which is the first time in this leg of the adventure that you’ve faced a foe casting legitimate magic spells — something that will grow much more common from here on out. Magic, at least for now, hits your party tremendously hard and poses a major threat.

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Any ghost companions you still have in tow will leave the party once you reach the engine car. Wouldn’t do to instantly-kill the upcoming boss, right? On the other hand, your erstwhile partner’s departure sends a clear signal that you need to brace for a big fight.

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To engage the boss, you need to complete a small puzzle… which isn’t really much of a puzzle, since the instructions are given clearly. A weirdly pointless little exercise.

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The Phantom Train culminates in a fight against… the Phantom Train. In a pretty fun twist, the final boss of the dungeon is the dungeon itself, annoyed that you’ve been ordering its denizens to commit eternal suicide and relegating half its passengers to eternal purgatory. Even though this boss is probably best know for the fact that…

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…Sabin’s Meteor Strike maneuver…

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…allows him to suplex a train

…it’s worth remembering simply for its creativity. The Phantom Train attempts to run you down as you scurry ahead of it, gaining the rear-attack advantage and using a variety of abilities against you, including a particularly nasty attack that only seems to appear if you no longer have Shadow in the party — which is a weird design choice, because you’re already at a huge disadvantage with only two party members against this boss.

Then again, like everything else in the dungeon, the Phantom Train is undead and will crumble at the touch of curative powers, and dies instantly if you hit it with a Phoenix Down.

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At the end of the dungeon, Sabin notices that Cyan looks like he’s seen a ghost. Because he has.

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Completely unique to this sequence, this scene ends only after a specific amount of time has passed — a moment of silence, as it were. You can’t leave the dungeon of your own volition, and you can’t stick around. Cyan reflects mournfully for several seconds while you control Sabin (Shadow advises giving the other man some respectful distance), then the scene fades to black before dumping you on the world map. This unusual presentation adds a subtle emotional punch to this sequence. You can only move along when Cyan is ready to move along. It’s little details like this that make FFVI so effective at character and story development despite its overall simplicity; not how much is said, but how smartly what little it does say is presented.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 12 | Triple triad (part the second)

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Locke and Celes’ path takes them from South Figaro back to Narshe. You know this route; you’ve already traveled it in the other direction. The prevailing theme of the game so far has been “retrace your footsteps,” and this sequence doesn’t disappoint. In this case, you need to pass through the cave between the desert and South Figaro.

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To keep it interesting, though, the designers have stocked the caves with enemies more appropriate to the current party’s (presumed) levels. These two could steamroll the hornets and other puny enemies from the previous trip, but the upgraded foes pose more of a threat. Why exactly the monsters here have been replaced by more dangerous creatures is never really stated — maybe there was some sort of ecological apocalypse while the team spent years locked in the Lete River experience loop? — but it makes this sequence into something more than just a perfunctory trip through known territory. It also provides attentive players with a cue: You’re on the right path, even if it seems like you’re just covering old ground, because here’s something you haven’t seen before.

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Throughout the trip through the cavern, the screen occasionally vibrates in sync with a strange rumbling sound. As you approach the exit, the source of this sound becomes clear: The Empire has attempted to stop you by sending a magic-slinging tunneling weapon after you.

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This is a nice little bit of setup; Final Fantasy games usually see you fighting a boss in dungeon scenarios like this, but unless the boss is specifically story-related, what you face off against usually just amounts to a random super-powerful creature that happens to reside along your path. In this case, the “random” boss isn’t quite so hard to explain, and it even comes with its own built-in foreshadowing.

The Tunnel Armor is by far the most powerful opponent to have appeared in the game so far save the Heavy Armors, which were optional. Unlike them, you have to pass Tunnel Armor to get to your next destination… and it comes at the end of a dungeon with no mid-point save opportunities, so the stakes for loss are higher than usual.

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The Tunnel Armor battle poses a challenge in its own right, but it also serves as a tutorial battle for Celes’ mysterious Runic skill. As the fight begins, Celes tells Locke that she can shut down many of Tunnel Armor’s attacks with her Runic skill. While this ability served zero purpose in the passage beneath South Figaro, where no enemies used magic, here it has tremendous value — though Runic alone can’t win this fight.

Runic is an entirely passive skill, which is why it seemed so useless in South Figaro. Celes’ class is Runic Knight, and Runic basically works like a magical Cover skill. Rather than acting directly for a turn, Celes will instead use her spell blade as a sort of lightning rod…

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….literally, in this battle, wherein the Tunnel Armor frequently casts the Lightning spell.

While the Tunnel Armor’s magic attack power is sufficient to make this spell a one-hit KO to a single-targeted character and bad news if it splits the spell across both party members, with Runic active Celes is able to absorb the spell. It hits her sword and disperses, doing no damage.

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And, as a bonus, the absorbed spell restores to Celes the number of magic points the caster expended on the spell. She will continue to suck spells from the air for as long as she maintains the Runic stance, no matter how many spells are cast. Once her turn comes up again, she’ll lower her posture until you select Runic again. This means that Runic is a rare instance in which Slow status can be a boon: Because Celes remains in her Runic state until her ATB meter refills, if you slow down her charge time she’ll maintain her defensive posture longer.

However, Runic does have some downsides. It only works on “normal” magic — that is, spells the party can learn. Special magic-like attacks, which most enemies favor over straight spells, won’t be affected by Runic. Worse yet, Runic absorbs all spells during that turn, both the enemy’s and the party’s. Forget about casting Cure or Raise while Celes holds her sword high. Sure, you can use this factor in a pinch to restore some MP to Celes without using an Ether or a spell like Rasp, but it greatly limits her efficacy in the latter half of the game, when the entire party has access to all kinds of crazy magic spells and uses them on the regular. Still, Runic does have its uses, and in battles like this it proves invaluable.

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However, as I mentioned, Runic alone won’t win this fight. While Celes wields her Runic blade, all her other skills are unavailable, placing both attacking and healing duties on Locke’s shoulders. Tunnel Armor doesn’t strictly use magical attacks, so healing plays a role here; the machine has a Magitek Laser that bypasses Runic, and its physical Drill attack inflicts major damage to a single character. Thankfully, it has fairly low HP, so Locke can beat it down on his own despite his low attack power, but it can be a tough fight — especially if Celes’ Runic falls out of sync with the Tunnel Armor’s spell-casting and it manages to slip in one of those powerful spells during the brief interim between her turns.

This would also be a good time to mention the importance of the evasion stat, which didn’t work correctly in the original Super NES version of FFVI (FFIII) but saved my bacon in this battle on GBA. Locke managed to evade two consecutive attacks in his critical state, giving him enough time to revive Celes and heal up before launching a final salvo of winning attacks against Tunnel Armor. Some armor and Relics and most shields boost a character’s evasion stat; the importance of shields here makes their value far more apparent than in many RPGs, and turns tactics like duel-wielding or two-handed grips into a tradeoff between defense and offense.

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With the Tunnel Armor defeated, Locke’s scenario ends — you don’t actually need to travel to Narshe on your own power, because as much as this game likes for you to retrace your footsteps it has to draw the line somewhere.

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And for our purposes, that leaves just one final scenario to explore — by far the lengthiest and most involved sequence of the three, spanning far more ground than Terra and Locke’s scenarios combined and introducing two new permanent party members (plus a third semi-permanent member, and a weird guest as well).

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It begins, as so many Final Fantasy scenarios do, with Sabin gaining consciousness after having washed ashore. This isn’t an Ys game, so there’s no winsome local lass to find him. Instead, he simply pulls himself to his feet and heads out.

There’s a small house in the wilderness immediately to the side of Sabin’s landing point on the coast — an optional stop, but one you’d be foolish to pass up. There’s a merchant here, along with that guy from the pub in South Figaro.

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The merchant offers some standard wares, but he also sells a few new items whose value isn’t immediately apparent: Shuriken and scrolls. No one can equip these, but the other part of this little puzzle is standing immediately to your left:

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Shadow. Despite his dark reputation, he seems a fairly affable fellow. He’s just hangin’ out in front of some crazy old dude’s house, offering advice to passing martial artists and even offering to tag along. How convenient, and equally handy that there just happened to be a merchant here ready to sell you consumables for Shadow’s special skill. In fact, this entire scenario relies heavily on narrative convenience, coincidence, and downright implausibility.

Shadow isn’t a permanent party member at this point; as he warns, he can potentially leave the party at (almost) any time, bugging off at the end of a battle and leaving Sabin solo. That’s only happened to me once in all the times I’ve played FFVI, though. Normally, he sticks around until the fixed point in the story at which he goes his own way no matter what.

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Shadow doesn’t travel alone, and his dog Interceptor wasn’t given his name by coincidence. Besides whatever statistical chance Shadow has of evading enemy attacks, there’s also a pretty strong chance (even odds, based on my experience) that Interceptor will leap in to parry any physical attack that targets Shadow, all but nulling the damage. Not only that, but from time to time Interceptor will follow one of these parries with a counter, dashing into the battlefield to deliver an insanely powerful strike in response to the attacker. While there are some limitations to Interceptor’s aid — there’s a chunk of the middle game where Shadow travels solo and doesn’t benefit from Interceptor’s help, and you can lose the dog forever due to a weird status-swapping glitch late in the game — this added defensive element makes Shadow an incredibly valuable party member.

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However, that’s not Shadow’s real special technique. Interceptor’s just a bonus! No, his unique secondary command is Throw, which works exactly as it did for Ninja characters in previous Final Fantasy games: Shadow is able to throw any edged weapon at an enemy for considerably greater damage than it would inflict when used for a standard attack. The downside, however, is that once you toss a weapon, it’s gone forever. So while you could theoretically chuck a one-of-a-kind sword like the Atma Weapon at a foe, that would be deeply foolish.

Luckily for Shadow’s utility, you can buy relatively inexpensive consumables like Shuriken to use with the Throw command. They don’t hit as hard as high-level weapons, but they do the job regardless… and won’t break the bank.

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Shadow can also “throw” scrolls, which work as special ninja techniques. An invisibility scroll, for example, causes Shadow to become invisible, making him ineligible for enemy AI to target with single-target attacks.

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However, group effects and multi-target magic will still hit him, bringing his invisibility status to an abrupt end.

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He can also use a Shadow Scroll, which basically works like the spell Blink: It creates an illusionary image that confuses enemies.

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While they can target him, they can’t land a hit. However, his “blink” state wears off after evading a couple of attacks.

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Shadow suggested to Sabin that the only way forward was to traipse through a haunted forest, but this is a video game, and that means there are always obstacles to deal with before you reach the other obstacle before your main objective. In this case, the Imperial Army has set up camp en route in order to stage an assault against the castled town of Doma.

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It’s not a very effective assault, as it consists of a handful of soldiers ramming the wall, trying to climb it, and comically failing. Still, the Empire has been remarkably industrious of late: Besides their small assault on Narshe, they’ve also conquered South Figaro and now are making a move on this kingdom.

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More importantly, though, the cut to Doma reveals that Sabin’s going to have another hungry mouth to feed soon. His name is Cyan, but you can call him “Obi-wan.”

Posted in Anatomy of a Game, Games. Tagged with , , , .

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI: Video Edition Pt. 2

Because sometimes dry text isn’t enough. Sometimes you need a dry voice to go with it.

Posted in Anatomy of a Game, Games. Tagged with , , , , .

The ’90s were right

Multimedia is the future.

Alas, I just realized that I have not yet posted the videos I put together over the holiday break, despite this site theoretically serving as my universal content aggregator. I’m sure you’re deeply aggrieved by this oversight, of course, because obviously it’s much too difficult to just subscribe on YouTube or to the iTunes feed.

Most recently, a new entry in the Metroidvania Chronicles series:

And before that, a look at Boomer’s Adventures in Asmik World for Game Boy.

And another video should be popping up tomorrow. There’s no escape from multimedia madness, I’m afraid.

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By request: What makes good writing?

By request of John Gill

One of my favorite jokes about writing is that the advice to “write what you know” accounts for the preponderance of half-finished novels about middle-aged literature professors contemplating adultery. It’s good to start with “what you know” as a base point, but let’s be totally honest: If you’re like most people, what you know is deeply mundane, possibly even insipid. “What you know” is better as a sort of guide post to keep your writing from going way off the deep end and becoming unrelatable… and even then, far too many people treat their own perspective uncritically as some kind of objective truth.

It can be great and effective when people write what they know, sometimes. But sometimes it turns out to be unfortunate and awful. The deciding factor is… how good the writer and her/his writing is. But “what makes good writing is good writers” seems circular and lazy.

Unfortunately, this circular statement holds true for every bit of advice, every metric I can think of. Techniques and philosophies for writing are inherently neither good nor bad on their own merits; rather, it’s all about how well those tools are put to use by the writer. Writing doesn’t kill words, bad writers do.

For example: Working toward a point makes for good writing… unless, of course, your point is terrible. Or you’re so fixated on that particular thesis as dogma that you run roughshod over nuance or facts. And actually, some of my own personal favorite pieces of writing have started out with a conclusion in mind, but I began to stray over the course of the writing process and ended up somewhere I never meant to go. My intended concluding statement is stranded over somewhere to the side of the path my words travelled, and I just have to shrug and roll with it, because what I came up with seems a lot more interesting than what I had tried to write.

There is no single voice or tone that makes writing good. Some authors work best in economical language. Others can let a single sentence spin wildly out of control in a way that would make most complete paragraphs blush in shame for their inadequacy, stringing together independent phrases and even incomplete clauses with abandon, treating internal punctuation the way an amateur repairman does duct tape: Binding together a ramshackle array of words and concepts together in a proper but conspicuously sloppy manner, in a spirit frowned upon by experts but effective nevertheless for conveying a concept and maintaining a brisk pace; such writers find it better to present their statement in a single breathless burst rather than break it apart more properly and run the risk of stodgy formalism unmaking the passion or conviction behind those words.

Yes, it’s good to write what you know, and Stephen King will probably never stop penning novels centered around New England (and specifically middle-aged New England men who write for a living). But it’s good to stretch beyond your finite world view, too, provided you do the legwork to make your essay convincing. Hidebound writing can be limited and toxic; but careless writing about other people, other countries, other culture, other disciplines — such work ultimately turns out to be hollow and unconvincing. Or even worse, it’s too convincing, filling readers with misinformation and confirming unrealistic attitudes or stereotypes. Again, it all comes down to the discipline and effort invested into the work.

In other words, “what makes good writers is good writers”: Useless advice at best and socially destructive Randian elitism at worst. Let’s not do that.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect the only thing connecting all the different kinds of good writing I’ve experienced in my life is a sense of confidence — a command of the English language. I say English because that’s what I read, but I’m sure the same holds true in any other language. A grasp of vocabulary, of structure, of idiom, of the way sounds flow and complement one another when arranged in different ways. Knowing grammar, commanding a wide array of ways in which to convey a given point, and intuitively understanding when to play by the rules and when to bend them. That’s the trick.

The best writing comes from people who write a lot and practice their craft. People who read a lot and draw inspiration from the work of others. People who listen to others and internalize the cadences and quirks of spoken language, who can combine the informal patterns of the spoken word with the propriety of tightly edited academic or journalistic phrasing. Someone who knows the right words for the right places, but who also has an instinct for predicting where the wrong words or grammar can create an interesting surprise. Good writing comes from knowing a dozen different ways to express a simple concept and understanding which particular style of phrase — whether curt, florid, pompous, idiomatic, academic, or otherwise — fits the situation best.

In other words, what makes good writing is: Study and practice, just like any other discipline.

I know, right? How boring. Well, I never promised that this would be good writing.

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By request: In spite of everything, things worked out.

By request of scottfraundorf

It’s true, it did. And it will.

Admittedly, I’ve always lived a charmed life. Not necessarily an easy or a carefree life — quite the opposite these days, in fact, as I struggle from day to day often wondering if I can even make it to the next — but a charmed one nevertheless. That is to say, no matter how impossible the situation seems, no matter the potential for disaster, things always seem to fall into place in the end.

My wife’s cousin gave both me and Cat a state lottery card apiece along with our Christmas gifts this year. A little odd, sure, but I was amused. I’ve never played the lottery, at least not that I can remember. There have been times I would very much like to win the lottery and not have to worry about money anymore, but I’m realistic about several-million-to-one odds.

Cat scratched off her card first and came up with… nothing. “That’s my luck,” she sighed. “I almost had several matches, but not quite.”

“That’s how they make these things,” I complained. “You come tantalizingly close, but not quite, so you’re more likely to buy another. This time it’ll work out, or that’s what they want you to think.”

She shrugged. “Try yours. I bet you’ll win something.”

I laughed. “Not likely.”

But a few minutes of meticulous scratching later, I had indeed won $8. Not a kingly sum by any means, but she looked satisfied with herself. “I told you so.”

And, yeah, maybe. She has the worst luck of anyone I’ve ever met, whereas I always seem to luck into things lining up the way I want or need them to, sometimes at the very last second. When we committed to buying a house last summer, all signs pointed to no. No matter what we did — paying down debts and boosting credit scores, accepting cash gifts from our parents, even convincing my employers to revise my employment status to look more attractive on paper — there was always some technicality that made the lenders turn us away. (Advice: Never try to support a family, let alone buy a home, entirely on a game journalist’s salary.) Yet, finally, on the last day of the last extended deadline for securing a loan commitment, things finally fell into place. Not perfectly, but acceptably.

I look back on my life and I see a system of things falling into place in lucky and often deeply improbable ways. Things don’t always necessarily go the way I want them to, but neither do they ever amount to disaster. I’ve never broken a bone, crashed a car, declared bankruptcy, been laid off or fired, had a run-in with an unfriendly member of the law, gotten into a fistfight. My parents each have several siblings, but they’re the only ones in their respective families to have gotten married and stayed married. I always got good grades in school, even when I didn’t try. I ended up with a massive scholarship to college more or less by dumb luck, having taken the PSAT on a whim without realizing its potential impact on collegiate admissions. Even things that appear to be disastrous failures on the surface, like my idiotically moving unprepared to NYC in search of work and ending up unemployed, living in my parents’ proverbial basement, and dumped unceremoniously by my girlfriend at the time, worked out: That particular scenario directly led to my being hired at 1UP and moving to San Francisco, where I found a much more fulfilling career than laying out used car ads for a newspaper… and, about a year later, met my future wife.

Somewhere along the way, I started to realize just how tenuous my successes in life have been, how much they rely on having been at the right place at the right time and knowing the right people. Rather than making me feel complacent and indestructible, this pattern has impressed on me the fragility of it all. I don’t go a day without pausing to appreciate the gossamer delicacy of the life that’s spun out for me, and how easily it could all go awry. The mere fact that I can even support a family of two while my wife builds up her clientele and reputation here in our new hometown defies the odds: I’ve turned down multiple opportunities to jump out of the games press into far more stable and lucrative areas of the industry, then willingly left a high-paying position at the biggest organization in the field for a smaller company offering far more modest wages and no benefits. We scrimp to get by much of the time, but we do get by, and next month (unless something goes hideously wrong) we’ll even be buying a house — something I never imagined I’d be able to do.

The benefits part was really dumb and gives us no end of anxiety, incidentally, thanks to my wife’s ongoing health struggles, which began when she came down with N1H1 in 2009. Our lives haven’t been the same since, though I try hard not to let the stress of it all show in my public persona or affect my work. Of course, I managed to dodge N1H1 despite going to the contagion-laden PAX that year and then spending several days at a Halo review event sitting a few feet from my video capture editor, who had gotten the disease at PAX himself. It kind of reminds me of the time in college I adopted a stray kitten who managed to give everyone around me ringworm (including my brother’s girlfriend, who never even saw the kitten in person) — but not me, despite the fact the sick little creature clung to me for weeks and even snuggled up to sleep pressed against me in my bed. Pure, dumb luck.

Often I worry that I’m playing roulette with our future, and every day I wake up and wonder if this is going to be the day I push that luck too far. But I continue to follow my heart and my ethics, supporting her on the days she needs support, and sometimes I feel like that’s our shield. That as long as I’m being true to myself and to my wife and family and friends, things will work out. Of course, that’s just superstition, and terrible things happen to good people all the time. But better to be driven to work harder by mystical drivel than toiling under a cloud of defeatism.

Anyway, I ended up giving my modestly lucky lottery card to Cat last night. “You can have this,” I said. “I’m sharing my ‘luck’ with you.”

She shook her head. “Don’t give me your luck! You need it.”

I placed the card in her hands with insistence. “I’m not giving it up. I’m sharing it with you.”

The face value of our lottery cards was $3 apiece, which means that between the two of us my $8 winnings amounted to a dollar each. A negligible amount at best, but coming out ahead nevertheless. In spite of everything, things work out.

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The 12 games of Christmas #1: Dragon Warrior

The first thing I remember about Dragon Warrior was Nintendo Power trying to sell it in a campaign to convince American kids that something called “RPGs” were going to be the next big thing.

“RPGs?” I thought. “Rocket-propelled grenades!?”

I was, admittedly, a weird kid.

But once I read the feature, something about this game seemed significant. Maybe I simply let myself buy into the manufactured hype that Nintendo‘s official publication cast so desperately in our direction, but Dragon Warrior struck my fancy enough to prompt me to put it near the top of my Christmas list in 1989. When I opened Faxanadu the night before Christmas, I figured I’d pretty much seen what I was going to see in terms of new video games. But no: Bright and early that morning, I peeled back the paper on a second NES game (a rare treat!), and it turned out to be Dragon Warrior.

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The second thing I remember about Dragon Warrior was my mother trying to downplay its contents to my very conservative grandmother, in whose name I had received the game and who traveled across the country to visit for Christmas. You know how that goes, perhaps: A distant relative commissions a parent to serve as their gift-buying proxy so as not to unwittingly pick up the wrong thing and ruin Christmas for some poor, materialistic child. I don’t blame my grandparents for using that tactic — especially as I was in the process of undergoing adolescence and the kids’ things they’d become used to giving me wouldn’t have gone over well at all.

So, my mother used her agency to pick up Dragon Warrior. It was a fine choice, but memories of the ’80s Dungeons & Dragons scare still lingered in certain churchy corners of America. My grandparents’ religious sincerity is something I admired about them, but it also meant that if I inadvertently connected the dots between D&D and Dragon Warrior, there would have been heck to pay. Well, no, but they would have set their faces in solemn looks of disapproval, which was so much worse.

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The third thing I remember about Dragon Warrior was meeting up with some school friends the day after Christmas to work on an extracurricular project. Naturally, we all exchanged heady tales of our newfound prizes of consumerism. I listened patiently to their recitations, and when my turn came all I could talk about was Dragon Warrior. (Sorry, Faxanadu.)

“Dragon Warrior?” one friend said, frowning. “That game looks terrible. The graphics are so bad.”

Another shrugged. “I like that kind of game.”

I gestured in annoyance. “Guys, you don’t understand. It’s so huge! I beat the game yesterday, except I didn’t! I saved the princess, but the adventure wasn’t over. I think it just started, actually. This is so much better than Mario.”

I don’t think they agreed, but they put up with my hyperbole regardless.

At the time, I didn’t appreciate or understand the heritage behind Dragon Warrior, née Dragon Quest. The D&D panic of the ’80s hit my church hard, and while my parents didn’t buy into it — I remember my father had a rather dim view of the leader of the moral panic, a local police detective who I assume had made his rounds to all the city’s elementary schools to preach out against the hellfire and brimstone aroma of THAC0, including the one where my father was principal — there definitely seemed to be a stigma against it. Also, all the D&D fans I knew of were the surly, unhygienic dudes in RATT and Slayer T-shirts in my gym class, which was reason enough to avoid the pastime.

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I also didn’t realize that Dragon Warrior wasn’t the game’s real name, or that the reason the “graphics are so bad” had to do with the fact that the game was actually as old as The Legend of Zelda, having taken three long years to make its way to the U.S. Aside from the oddly whimsical monster graphics in combat, nothing about Dragon Warrior screamed “This is from Japan!” — except, of course, the game credits, but it never really occurred to me at the time that all the games I like were from another country. I just assumed a bunch of Americans with foreign names all worked together on these projects, like maybe you had to be Asian-American in order to be smart enough to work on games. I don’t know. It was a small world for me back then. The World Wide Web was still five years away, and in any case I don’t think I’d ever even used an Internet-capable computer at that point. I didn’t realize Wargames was basically the story of how a bunch of disgruntled teens would spend Christmas 2014.

So I didn’t know Dragon Warrior was the biggest thing going in Japan. I didn’t realize the artwork had been drafted by the creator of one of the world’s most popular comics. I didn’t have the faintest clue that before the game could make its way West it needed to undergo a design overhaul, expand onto a larger ROM in order to accommodate all the inefficient English text, and incorporate a battery backup. I had no clue that it combined elements of Wizardry, Ultima, and The Portopia Serial Murder Case.

I also had no idea what turn-based combat and random encounters were about. Those utterly baffled me at first.

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But I figured it all out quickly enough — quickly enough to have rescued poor Princess Gwaelin by the end of Christmas day. Dragon Warrior required a lot of abstract thought, but that was fine; I was a voracious reader and therefore quite practiced at using my imagination to fill in the gaps in media. It helped, too, that Dragon Warrior itself involved a great deal of reading; even though the script was hilariously limited and repetitive, each and every enemy encounter unfolded almost like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I had previously borrowed some Endless Quest books from a friend, and it wasn’t difficult to make the logical leap from there to here.

Even though I thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Warrior — if the game continuing on after the rescue of the Princess blew my mind, the fact that the final boss resided in the castle directly across the water from the starting town detonated it with the vigor of a demolitions crew — it would be several years before I stopped being intimidated by the scale and majesty of RPGs. Nintendo did too good a job presenting this genre as something remarkable, as it turned out.

Note: This essay by request of aloiswittwer

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 11 | Triple triad (part the first)

Until now, Final Fantasy VI has treated Terra as the game’s main character. Even in the brief sequence where you controlled Locke, you didn’t really control him — he made his way through the Narshe caves on auto-pilot, and the entire multi-party battle transpired with Terra unconscious in the background. She’s been a constant presence through the story, but that changes in a big way here and we finally get a true sense of FFVI‘s ensemble cast structure.

The story at this point splits into three, allowing you to follow Terra and Edgar, Locke, or — somewhat surprisingly — newcomer Sabin. Along the way, they katamari themselves some more party members, and by the time the group reconvenes in Narshe your list of available protagonists will nearly have doubled.

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Not only is Terra no longer the sole lead for FFVI, her branch of the triple scenario is by far the shortest and least interesting. You head back the way you came, toward Narshe, retracing your footsteps through previously covered ground once again.

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You can wander through familiar ground if you like, but there’s even less point to it than the first time you came through this way: Figaro Castle remains submerged beneath the sands. Edgar must have left his remote in his other pantaloons.

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While your goal is Narshe, you can’t enter through the main gate — the guards are still salty about Terra killing off a few dozen of their friends. I suppose the fact that they simply won’t let you into town is them letting you off lightly, all things considered.

You can swap to different lead party members here, but it makes no difference. These guys don’t know Banon, and they understandably assume that Edgar claiming to be the king of Figaro is this world’s equivalent of claiming to be Napoleon Bonaparte.

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At this point, the game doesn’t explicitly tell you the next step in progressing the plot, instead relying on your ability to remember how things went the first time you were in Narshe. While it’s a bit of a risk to hope you’ll remember Locke’s secret exit from several hours ago and make the connection that it doubles as a secret entrance, the game design doesn’t leave you a lot of other options. There’s really nothing else to do in this region, and it’s clear you need to make your way into the city somehow. The one flaw here is that it hasn’t been possible to activate this secret door until this very moment — so if, for example, you tried poking around with Terra (or even later with Edgar and Locke as well) to re-enter the caves only to find no interactive elements in this cliff, it might not occur to you that suddenly the passage has become available as an option.

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Inside, there’s more retracing of steps, though the game tries to mix it up a little. Here in the large cavern, where you formerly fought a multi-party battles alongside a bunch of moogles, you’ll now find a security system. A light appears and travels along a specific path, which you need to follow precisely lest you trigger a battle and get dumped back to the entrance. This could be interesting, but there’s no discovery here: Edgar straight-up tells you that you need to follow the light. So rather than becoming a puzzle, it’s just a small bit of busywork.

On the other hand, an older RPG would have forced you to figure out the route without the aid of the light, resulting in tedious trial-and-error and massive frustration. Progress isn’t always perfect, but a small chore sure beats a lengthy and tiresome hassle.

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The back entrance to Narshe leads you, not surprisingly, to “old man” Arvis’ home, where it all began. And… that’s it for Terra (and Banon, who will make one last cameo or two in the story ahead but never as an active party member). A simple and uninspired diversion that could just as well have been explained in a sentence of narrative.

The other scenarios, on the other hand, are considerably more extensive and imaginative. Of the two, Locke’s is the most compact, so we’ll begin there.

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Locke, of course, headed to South Figaro to cause interference with the Empire’s conquest of Figaro, which obviously serves as a foothold for the advance on Narshe and a larger-scale attempt to take the frozen Esper in the caves. He left before the party ventured onto the Lete River, and in a small nod to continuity and timelines, we rejoin him after he’s done his sabotage. Now the task is simply to escape from the city…

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…which is more difficult than it sounds thanks to these advanced Magitek armors stationed about the city at all the exits. Any time Locke talks to a soldier in town, he’ll enter a fight. Regular soldiers he can defeat easily enough, but a Heavy Armor will destroy him in about two turns. With the equipment and items you have at this point in the game, you can’t simply attack and heal your way to victory; you need to spend every turn restoring health, meaning there’s no way to sneak in some damage. While they look like Magitek Armors, which you’ve fought and beaten before, Heavy Armors are far more durable and powerful… though the fact that they’re balanced so as not to kill Locke instantly is a nice touch. If you wander into a fight assuming you can steamroll through, you’re in for a nasty surprise, but you still have time to flee.

For all intents and purposes, though, Heavy Armor is unbeatable at this moment, forcing you to find a more indirect route to the exit.

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If you took the time to poke around in South Figaro before, when it was a neutral space, you probably have a good idea of what you’re meant to do: Find the underground passage and sneak out that way. This is more easily said than done, however, as the rich man’s mansion is now under heavy garrison, serving as a makeshift headquarters for the Imperial incursion. This initiates a trading quest of sorts as you need to find your way into the mansion, which involves getting past certain Imperials and a kid blocking the path through town.

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This doesn’t seem like much of an obstacle, but this is an RPG. Children are even more indestructible than Heavy Armors.

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South Figaro has no random encounters, but you can still get into battles with enemy soldiers, Heavy Armors, and… merchants? Yes, it’s possible to fight merchants, which seems pointless at first — they offer little in the way of experience or gold, go down in about two hits, and attack with all the force of the losing contestant in a slap-fight. But if a thief-by-any-other name is going to fight a merchant, wouldn’t you want to see what happens if you try stealing from them? Who knows what kinds of goodies you could pilfer!

The answer, it turns out, is that you can basically steal their best armor (and occasionally their best weapon), the Plumed Hat and the Main Gauche. These are worth having by hook or by crook — especially the Main Gauche, a dagger that increases Locke’s defense (just like a real-world main gauche, which has a special guard that allows for parrying despite its small blade size). But when you steal from a merchant, you also get the bonus of stealing his clothes, leaving him to scurry off in embarrassment… and also in his undercrackers.

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This allows you to get about town as a merchant, which soldiers will give you passage to areas that Locke couldn’t reach. However, you’re pointed toward one specific merchant, who carries a special stock of cider, which is mentioned conspicuously by an old man who in turn is mentioned conspicuously as a means of gaining access to the north mansion. If you approach this merchant while disguised as a competitor, he’ll go on the attack, allowing you to acquire the all-important cider.

You can also use the steal trick on green-garbed soldiers, which allows you to swipe their uniform and relieve certain soldiers at key points in the city. You still can’t slip past the Heavy Armor, but getting about in disguise is generally the way to go here.

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Once you have the cider, you give it to the old man, who… does nothing for you. Weirdly, the game drops you into a guessing game, since the old drunk forgot the password to get through town. Still, this does open up a dialogue prompt with the kid obstructing the stairway that leads to the back part of town and the mansion’s service entrance, which is the real point. But you have to take a wild guess at the password to get through. Though there’s no penalty for failure, so again, this is one of those instances where FFVI puts up a semblance of complexity without really delivering.

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Inside the mansion, however, there’s a nice touch of sound design. Duncan’s wife, who lives in the city, mentions that there are secrets where draught excluders don’t live, and it’s pretty easy to put together two and two and deduce that you need to look for a secret passage in a drafty room. When you enter the rich man’s study, the game music fades away — conspicuously, as this is the first time in this South Figaro sequence that the background melody has disappeared entirely — and as you approach the bookshelves in the west end of the room you begin to hear wind noises fade up. While a bit of an exaggeration, it’s a clever use of audio to create a clue while still allowing the player to draw his or her own conclusions.

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Behind the bookshelf is a cellar that’s been turned into a makeshift cell: A woman has been locked up here by Imperial soldiers. You can name her if you like, which obviously means she’s about to team up with Locke…

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…despite ostensibly operating on the other side of the law. Locke and Celes (or Han and Leia, if you prefer) have a lengthy conversation right in front of a sleeping guard before making a hasty exit through the cellars.

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You’ll find an even more secret passage leading forward if you wind the broken clock. If you spoke to the rich man’s daughter, there was a clue here… though the game won’t let you out the other way, and this is a dead end, so it’s not like you have a lot of other choices here.

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In a nice little touch, the treasure chests in the hidden passage appear to contain Celes’ armor and weapons, which the Empire obviously stripped from her when she was put into prison for being insufficiently horrible.

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The so-called secret passage also plays home to a lot of soldiers and guard dogs, making this one horribly-kept secret. However, the combat sequence here does allow you the chance to get a sense of Celes’ capabilities… sort of. Like Terra, she can use magic — her specialty is ice versus Terra’s innate fire skills. Once again, this serves to highlight Terra’s uniqueness; Celes is one of the few humans capable of casting magic, and she was installed as a high-ranking soldier in the Empire as a result. None of the mooks you take on here can use spells. At this point, Locke has become best pals with the two most powerful ladies on the planet in the space of a few days.

Unlike Terra, Celes also has a special command unique to her class (Runic Knight) to complement her spellcasting: Runic. At this point, however, Runic appears to do nothing whatsoever besides wasting a turn. This is actually true of most of the game! But Celes’ unique skill does have its uses and will come into play soon enough.

Posted in Anatomy of a Game, Games. Tagged with , , , , , .

The 12 games of Christmas #2: The Legend of Zelda – The Minish Cap

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap has a pretty lousy reputation among fans. Or at least it did a decade ago. It’s probably improved since then, because there are newer Zelda games to hate. The rule of Zelda fandom is that the latest game is always the worst in the series, and with each new release suddenly the ones you hated a few years ago are brilliant. Have always been brilliant. Have always been at war with Eurasia.

At the time of its release, though, Minish Cap gathered quite a few detractors. It wasn’t a real Zelda game, claimed many critics, because it was codeveloped by Capcom offshoot Flagship. (The Flagship-developed Oracle games were OK, though, because… well, mainly because they were no longer the newest portable Zelda titles.) The last boss encounter was arbitrary (true). The trading/collecting quest was pointless (yeah, but aren’t they always). And so forth.

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For my part, I really enjoyed, and enjoy, Minish Cap. Although I always feel a twinge of guilt when I think about it.

For whatever reason, Nintendo launched Minish Cap in Europe first, shortly before Christmas 2004. That was the Christmas I found myself trying to find love for the DS, so I imported Minish Cap to take along with me for when I started to feel burned out a system whose catalog consisted of The Urbz, a bad racing game, and a port of an eight-year-old platformer. It didn’t take long, truth be told. So Minish Cap mostly kept me occupied on that trip, thanks to the DS’ GBA cartridge slot.

I wasn’t entirely used to the dynamics of the DS’s physical form factor, though, so in my excitement over being able to plug in stereo headphones and listen to the game on a plane without the use of the GBA SP’s asinine (and way overpriced) headphone adapter, I didn’t really pay much attention to my thoroughness. The DS headphone jack had a surprising amount of resistance and, weirdly, the ability to seat a plug in such a way that you could hear the audio through both the system’s speakers and the stereo headphones.

Not realizing this, I played on the plane for a couple of hours, reveling in being able to hear the game, until suddenly the elderly lady next to me tapped my arm.

“Can you turn that off?” she asked once I pulled my headphones out.

“Wait, you can hear that?” I said, startled.

“Oh, yes,” she replied. “Everything.”

And sure enough, even though I was listening to the game through headphones, the plug wasn’t seated well enough to shut down the speaker circuit. I suppose three hours of scratchy music and Link’s “YAHHH!” samples would wear on anyone.

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Ah well. Even if it ruins old ladies’ days, I still admire The Minish Cap. It was good, solid fun, and the concept of shrinking a character to send them scurrying through an oversized world isn’t played with often enough. It’s also much more interesting when integrated into a 2D game, since you can’t just scale down the camera perspective — you have to redraw the world and invest greater detail into elements that otherwise would simply vanish into the background.

My one complaint about Minish Cap is that I never finished the game 100%. The European version had an unfortunate bug that prevented players from completing one of the trade quests. Although maybe that was a good thing, since it disabused me of the urge to try obsessive-compulsively scraping every last little bit of content from games. Sometimes, it’s enough to simply enjoy a work.

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The 12 games of Christmas #3: Mega Man 3

I know I’ve told this story before, but I received Mega Man 3 as a gift on Christmas morning 1990. By the middle of the afternoon, I’d already beaten it, much to my mother’s consternation — the idea that I’d already finished such an expensive gift so quickly really irritated her. But she didn’t realize that Mega Man 3 was fantastic and that I fully intended to play it over and over again. Which I did. Money well invested, I would say.

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Mega Man 3 proved that whatever dark alchemy used to create Mega Man 2 wasn’t simply a fluke, or some sort of formula that would vanish forever at the stroke of midnight. Here we had Capcom recapturing the greatness of Mega Man’s breakout title and building on an already amazing creation. Sure, some of the new elements here change the nature of parts of the game — the ability to slide opens new tactical possibilities while losing some of the mechanical purity of the first two titles — and the weapons aren’t as useful as in the previous game (though some might argue Metal Blade was too useful).

Nevertheless, for every possible down side, Mega Man 3 introduced a number of upsides. The remixed stages you have to complete before taking on Dr. Wily’s lair aren’t simply padding, they rework each stage to create new and more challenging scenarios for play mechanics you might otherwise take for granted. The music, expectedly, rocks. The graphics extend the depth and quality of Mega Man 2‘s characters to the backgrounds and environments, offering a wider array of visuals and characters. If ever you needed a case for the importance of giving developers a little more room to stretch, compare the visual improvements afforded by Mega Man 3‘s more advanced mapper chip to the great but limited visuals in the previous game.

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Despite the upgrade, Mega Man 3 didn’t compromise the series’ underlying cartoon weirdness. Those bug-eyed Disney robots became even wackier — grenades dashing at you in a suicide run, penguin generators that looked like shaved ice makers, and more. All goofy, and all the weirder for how hostile and deadly they were.

The next year, I opened up a copy of Mega Man 4 for Christmas, kicking off a tradition that… ended abruptly, because the Super NES came along and made NES Mega Man feel tragically limited. But it was fun while it lasted.

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