My ‘Final Games’

One of my favourite podcasts, Final Games, is to video games what BBC’s Desert Island Discs is to music. Each episode a different guest details their 8 video game choices they would take with them to a hypothetical deserted location for the rest of their days.

So, in Final Games tradition, I will include my choices with a sample of music from each, and my reasons for each choice. Enjoy.

Tetris (Gameboy, 1990):-

There are many iterations of Tetris, but for me all pale in comparison in quality, simplicity, and sheer importance to video games than the Gameboy version. The tile-matching puzzle titan was the original mobile gaming phenomenon that brought gaming to the masses. It helped launch video games into the mainstream and many of its derivatives appeal to those who even don’t consider themselves a gamer.

Back in 1989/90 when physical console multiplayer connections were a must, I often challenged a friend who lived around the corner, visiting each other’s homes to spend hours on linked battle mode.

Tetris is the perfect pickup and play game, whether it’s a bus journey, your lunch break at work, or simply the need to engage your brain for any amount of time.

Super Mario Bros 3 (NES, 1991):-

The Christmas of 1991 I received my very own Nintendo Entertainment System, along with the latest Super Mario game – Super Mario Bros 3.

Mario games were easily the benchmark for all platformers today, 2D/3D, and back then, this was the benchmark. The overworld map, suits (frog, hammer and Tanooki) and the super leaf were all introduced here, and have been mainstays ever since.

At 10-years-old I wasn’t great at video games but I herald beating Super Mario bros 3 as my earliest gaming triumph.

 

The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past (SNES, 1992):-

Link to the Past was the first video game I’d ever bought 2nd hand back in 1993/4. LttP is a game I make a time-honoured tradition of playing through each year. Like Super Mario World, it was another masterpiece released around the launch of the Super Nintendo, and simply timeless.

From the dramatic opening, essentially a tutorial which serves as a perfect insight into the themes of discovery and survival the game brings, Link to the Past is simply one of the best adventure games ever to be coded, and a journey I implore everyone to take at least once in their lifetime.

 

Chrono Trigger (SNES 1995, 2008)

The supergroup collaboration of Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest creator Yuji Hori, Dragonball and Z creator Akira Toriyama plus script writer Masoto Kato simply created a masterpiece in role-playing and storytelling. Despite its standard JRPG appearance Chrono Trigger is bolstered by its time travel mechanic, resulting is a story that transcends thousands of years and consists of love, tragedy, and friendship, with 13 different endings on offer.

Neither the SNES or the PS1 versions were released in Europe, and it wasn’t until around 2001 that I managed to grab a decent boxed copy – but it set me back £92. Once it finally got it’s 2008 DS release, my dream was realised. 13 years of hype and it did not disappoint.

 

Pro Evolution Soccer 6 (PS2, 2006):-

If I’m going to live out my days alone in a deserted location, then I’m going to need my football fill.

Since its release in 2006 I have spent hour upon ungodly hour challenging the incredible Master League mode; easily the greatest single player football mode in any football game ever made.

The beauty of the PES series is that as you raised the bar, so did the game in its challenge and learning curve.

A joy to play, difficult to put down, PES 6 is the football game I would take to my grave.

 

Bayonetta 2 (Wii U, 2014):-

Bayonetta 2 is simply a masterpiece. Yusuke Hashimoto’s sequel to Hideki Kamiya’s incredible Bayonetta achieved what few sequels do: not only replicate what made the original a success, but also improve every element.

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The combat is simply a masterclass, the art direction stunning, the pacing tighter, truly improving what was already a perfect original. Despite the main campaign taking around 10 hours, there is so much more to perfect resulting in a title that could possibly be played forever, with secrets to find, scores/grades to beat, combos to create and perfect; Bayonetta 2 is simply incredible.

 

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64, 1998):-

OoT is simply the most incredible video game ever devised. Enjoy Oblivion/Skyrim? Dark Souls/Bloodborne? The Witcher? OoT is the blueprint for all of those and many more.

It was released 2 weeks before Christmas in 1998 and in truth I did little else in the advent lead up than sample its delightful open world, fall in love with the combat mechanics, savour the magnificent soundtrack, and surrender myself to the contentment that the game delivers.

Following its 3DS remake and release in 2011 I once again stepped into Link’s shoes and it is as much a joy to play now as it was almost 20 years ago, and I’m sure I could say the same in another 20 years.

 

Final Fantasy VII (PS1, 1997):-

Cloud’s journey to stop world-controlling corporation Shinra from draining the world’s life essence for fuel resource has everything: friends, enemies, love, tragedy, death, and one of the greatest antagonist’s in video game history, Sephiroth.

Tscus_94163_07042008_191550_0015he beauty of Final Fantasy VII is its pacing, the turn-based combat, the incredible backdrops, levelling system, and so much more. The sprites may now look a little outdated, but the rendered backdrops really capture the mood and condition of the slums people must live in, and the open world is truly a feast for the eyes.

Final Fantasy VII is the only game in the series I’ve gone back to, having finished it twice, and still desire to go back to on a regular basis. When the time comes, it is a journey I would gladly take once again.

 

 

 

 

 

Retroreflection #2: Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime

Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are the world’s most famous JRPG series to date. Once respectively developed by fierce rivals Squaresoft and Enix, both tried to match each other year after year until the 2 companies merged in 2003, in order to better compete in the western market. Now some 13 years later, they certainly did just that, with the the now-named Square Enix become a big publisher in their own right, of course retaining the Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest IP’s, as well as owning other big names Tomb Raider, Hitman, and Deus Ex.

That popularity has brought spin off titles for both franchises; Final Fantasy creating a new series subtitled Crystal Chronicles for Nintendo platforms, along with the more strategic Final Fantasy Tactics series. Dragon Quest on the other hand, went with the Pokemon-esque Monsters series, and also the Mystery Dungeon series. This edition of Retroreflection tackles the spin-off that is considered a bit more niche given its core series: Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime.

So what is it?

You know how the story goes: all of Slime village’s inhabitants are kidnapped except you, and it’s your job to find and free everyone, acquiring and upgrading a tank (powered by a magic flute of course) to save your village. Not heard that one before? Of course you haven’t. But while Rocket Slime may sound like nothing you’ve experienced before, it’s the combination of successful elements; most prominently Legend of Zelda, Pokemon, and a semi- strategic tank battle component for boss battles. Enough about the story though, Rocket Slime is about one thing: kicking the crap out of everything and collecting everything.

Unlike your typical sword-wielding RPG hero, Rocket is just a blue yet humble ball of goo. Players can attack using the only method available; holding down the action button along with the d-pad, in order to stretch Rocket in any direction, to slingshot him at baddies or break open chests. If held for a brief moment, Rocket performs a huge “elasto-blast” at enemies, bouncing around the area at high speeds.

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The beauty of Rocket Slime is in its exploration, and this is where the LoZ influence comes in. 75% of the game is a top-down platform adventure through 7 stages, where the titular ‘Rocket’ can jump, hover and attack when desired. After the initial couple of stages, you can explore where you want depending on your acquired abilities at that point; once all stages are unlocked, each one can be returned to as desired to use new abilities to finish them off. Your village companions must all be rescued to finally complete the game, and the village itself serves as hub for recovery and upgrades in between stage visiting.

It’s perfectly paced, with a learning curve that ensures you will never be bored; there is always new areas to explore/unlock, new abilities to learn and items/enemies to collect. 46640-Dragon_Quest_Heroes_-_Rocket_Slime_(U)(Legacy)-9The tank element is also huge fun, providing hands-on-deck fast-paced action as you load up previously collected items into your tanks cannons against your enemy tank. It’s an excellent tactical element that mixes surprisingly well and serves as an excellent climax to a title that is simply a joy to play.

Multiplayer is also available, and Rocket Slime delivers some very entertaining action as well. The tank battles from the single player boss fights are used, and up to four players can link up locally in 1v1, 1v2, or 2v2 battles. Unfortunately it is multi-cart multiplayer only, with no online/Wifi support, so it will be harder than ever to find Rocket Slime buddies to enjoy with. Multiplayer mode really feels like a whole separate game to the main quest, with a choice of a ton of different tanks, and up to 9999 HP available to distribute. Not to mention the variety of levels and support characters available.

Overall – *****

Rocket Slime is an amazing, if a little odd at first, DS gem. It is a game that knows its audience, delivering tongue-in-cheek moments and fan-service that Square Enix’s loyal fans will enjoy, while keeping the adventure fresh and simple throughout. Perfectly paced with tons to explore, Rocket Slime is possibly the most endearing JRPG spin-off in existence. An absolute joy to play from start to finish.

Journey into Mistwalker: Lose Yourself with a Fantasy Genius

Hironobu Sakaguchi could well be considered the Shigeru Miyamoto of JRPG videogames. He created the Final Fantasy video game series; the ‘Final’ meaning his final stab at making a mark on the industry 30 years ago. 4 sequels as director came after that, and also had a hand in the most revered FF titles VI and VII. Sakaguchi went onto direct the box-office bomb that was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. This consequently led to Sakaguchi voluntarily leaving his presidential position at Square (now Square Enix). In 2004, Sakaguchi founded his own company, Mistwalker.

Back when Microsoft actually cared about the JRPG genre, Mistwalker initially signed up with them to produce exclusive titles for the Xbox 360. 2 of which are possibly the finest JRPG’s for the system: Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey.

Blue Dragon is as traditional a JRPG as you’ll ever come across. A group of heroes set about to save their land from an evil ruler, traversing a massive world and using turn-based combat to defeat foes along the way. It does however boast unique qualities most other RPG’s at the time didn’t have. Blue Dragon was one of the first 3D RPGs released for the 360. It also boasts the unique art style of Akira Toriyama, creator of manga/anime series Dragon Ball. His artistic style and talent is also used in the Dragon Quest video game series. And to polish things off, the soundtrack is delivered from the immense musical talents of Nobou Uematsu, who also left Square to join Mistwalker with Sakaguchi.

Blue Dragon helped boost sales of the Xbox 360 in Japan at its 2006 release, along with game sales of over 167,000 in the first 10 weeks. Although in contrast Japan is an area that arguably Microsoft have now given up on; having only sold around 75,000 Xbox One consoles in total, and barely a JRPG even on the horizon. In it’s lifetime, Blue Dragon has managed around 920,000 unit sales worldwide, with over half of those coming from Japan and Europe.

“Microsoft sold 35,343 Xbox 360s – an increase of nearly 90 per cent over the previous week’s figure of just over 4000 consoles. It’s likely that the rise was linked to the release of Blue Dragon, which was developed by Mistwalker, the studio led by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi.”
– Ellie Gibson, Blue Dragon release boosts Xbox 360 sales in Japan, GamesIndustry.biz

Although Blue Dragon has been somewhat criticised for being too-traditional, even old-fashioned, there are some nice touches. For example, the battles are not the often-loathed ‘random’ battles from past Final Fantasy games, but instead induced/avoided by engaging/escaping the on-screen enemies. Hitting them first also gives you the first hit once a battle is initiated. Blue Dragon may not reinvent the wheel, but that does it no harm at all. It comes on 3 discs, and will easily clock up 60 hours+ before reaching the end. Only the most hyped RPG’s of such magnitude would attract the casual western gamer; in comparison the immensely disappointing Final Fantasy XIII managed over 2 million in sales, with over half coming from the US.

Blue Dragon is much the better title, although less-appealing to many on the surface. The cartoon style graphics and action-figure style characters appeal more to anime fans, but the battle elements and grand-adventure style make it an essential Xbox JRPG.

Following on from the success Blue Dragon brought, a franchise was born. An anime series was created, 2 sequels were also developed. This time Mistwalker turned to Nintendo, and Blue Dragon Plus came to pass for the Nintendo DS. This entrant to the series was billed as a real-time simulation RPG. It retains the Toriyama-style visuals that define the series. The series’ transition from 360 to Nintendo’s plucky handheld gives it more of a Final Fantasy XII Revenant Wings perspective, a perfect blueprint for its RTS roots. The sequel also retains the characters from the original game, and many of its RPG elements, despite being more of an RTS title. It certainly ranks up there with Revenant Wings, and similar titles Heroes of Mana and Lost Magic.

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Blue Dragon Awakened Shadow followed soon after, not only continuing the real-time strategy elements of its predecessor, but also adopting Dragon Quest IX’s route of allowing creation/customisation of your own lead character.

Mistwalker’s other big release was Lost Odyssey, again for the Xbox 360. Boasting incredible visuals, this 4-disc epic is still a favourite among many an RPG fan, both east and west. For those that were waiting for their Final Fantasy fix at the time, this more than filled the gap. While there have always been varied opinions of Final Fantasy XIII, Lost Odyssey still sits firmly on my gaming shelf where Final Fantasy XIII is hanging on, possibly never to be touched again. Lost Odyssey may have reverted back to the use of random battles, but the battle trigger system (pressing within a time frame to land extra hits) is superior to Blue Dragon’s old school ‘press A and wait’ system, providing more interaction and more reward for doing so.

The story and characters are excellent, providing moments of danger, fear, action, even comedy, and giving the gamer a great sense of empathy to boot. You really feel you are following the journey that Kaim, the lead character, is taking, and will be as determined as he is to find out about his past and how he appears to be immortal.

Following the Nintendo DS releases, Mistwalker stayed with Nintendo, culminating in the production of The Last Story. It proved to be the Nintendo Wii’s swansong RPG, and is now becoming increasingly rare. The Last Story was Sakaguchi’s first title as director since Final Fantasy V, way back in 1992. A Wii exclusive, and still yet to be released on the Wii U’s Virtual Console (please please please), The Last Story is proof that Sakaguchi has definitely still got it. The back story is typical RPG: The Last Story is framed by the ongoing war between humans and the Gurak, set in and around the fantasy setting of Lazulis Island. The story is simple: boy meets girl, gains superpowers and proceeds to save the world. Typical life for a JRPG hero.

However, unlike your typical JRPG that last 60 hours plus, the main story is around the 20-30 hour mark, with no grinding required, as everything happens in real time. Its streamlined controls make it easy to pick up and go, and the action is fast and furious. This, along with co-operative AND multiplayer deathmatch modes, means that Mistwalker certainly have innovated the JRPG over the years, more so than the Final Fantasy series ever has.

Nintendo/Squaresoft Gems of a Generation

Before Square Enix there was Square Company. From its inception Square released 145 titles before its merger with Enix in 2003. Many of these games were released under a given ‘Squaresoft’ brand name, such as the ever-popular Final Fantasy VII for PS One, which was one of the west’s first taste of Squaresoft magic, which paved the way for world-wide RPG dominance. However this series, and other famous Square properties such as the Front Mission and the SaGa series all in fact began on Nintendo platforms, albeit mostly Japan-only releases.

Following Nintendo’s failed SNES-CD venture with Sony and then Phillips, and subsequent continuation with cartridge games with the N64, all these properties moved onto the Sony PlayStation. And, despite Final Fantasy VII being the most famous RPG of all time, and subsequent remakes for today’s platform, it’s often the SNES titles Squaresoft produced that remain firmly in our hearts.

The SNES has the best anthology of RPG’s, and in my opinion are still the most accessible to this day. The afore-mentioned series’ may well be the most recognised due to their ongoing adventures, but 2 in my mind stick out as the 16-bit generation’s best: Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana.

Potential spoilers, be warned.

Chrono Trigger

The superlatives for Chrono Trigger are never ending, echoed by many, with good reason. The brainchild of A-List creators Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy), Yuji Hori (Dragon Quest, from fierce rivals-come eventual partners Enix) and Akira Toriyama (DragonBall creator, and Dragon Quest artist), it’s incredible to think this game could even happen. It did, and it is a magnificent package. The SNES proved to be the platform that showcased both graphical power and fully conveyed stories and characters by their creators, and Chrono Trigger has both in spades.

You play Crono, a young boy whose chance meeting with a young woman named Marle at the local fair, leads to a series of time travel adventures. He makes friends while ripping back and forth through time, uncovering the plans of an evil force laid dormant for centuries.

Presented in typical top-down RPG view, Chrono Trigger at first seems like no more than a typical Final Fantasy affair, but it’s active time battles keep the action flowing perfectly, and none of the battles feel forced into, which Final Fantasy games can certainly be guilty of.

The heroes assembled throughout lead you through like any great fantasy novel; you connect with them and want them to win, not just because it’s the aim of the game. One such hero is Frog, who is (surprise), a frog. But, you just know from the first meeting there is something more going on, and you have to know. This is typical of all the hero contingent, and it’s what separate’s Chrono Trigger from the pack. Chrono Trigger’s further uniqueness from other RPG’s of this nature stems from its time trial plot device; there are no less than 13 different endings possible in this game, and a typical run through is around 20-30 hours, unlike similar RPG’s that can clock in double that easily. It’s not very often that JRPG’s warrant a replay, but Chrono Trigger does exactly that. It has been re-mastered and re-released numerous times, but never strayed away from its 2D blueprint. If it isn’t broke, why fix it?

Secret of Mana

Another Squaresoft classic, and is actually a sequel (Final Fantasy Mystic Quest for Game Boy being the original), Secret of Mana is a grand adventure. There is more of a Link to the Past feel to it, but with key JRPG elements being the backbone. The combat system is the best example of this; like Zelda, you are free to move, attacking enemies when you wish, however to land the heavier blows you must allow your weapon gauge to recharge 100% first.secret-of-mana_3

You control any one of 3 three characters; Randi, the main protagonist and holder of the Mana Sword), Primm, a princess on the run from an arranged marriage) and Popoi, a ‘Sprite’ who has no memories of his past, so joins the quest to seek them. The quest is almost Zelda-like; the Mana Sword must be re-energized by acquiring the power of the 8 Mana Seeds. Compared to Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana is indeed much more clichéd and simpler in its story. But its unique mixture of real-time battles, epic bosses, excellent use of the Mode 7 graphic technique, and seamless flow to the adventure make it near flawless. Additional to this is the intuitive and superb Ring Command menu system; options such as equip, using items, etc. appear in a circle around your controlled character, leaving you to simply access the desired options without the arduous, multi-layered menu system JRPG’s often have.

Both Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana have been released for touch screen mobile platform in recent years, and even with the initial bedding in process of touch-screen joysticks, little of the magic is lost, 20 years on from their inception. Although of the same genre, they are different adventures in so many ways, and easily 2 of the best RPG’s of all time. They are also 2 of the most treasured items to own for retro-collectors, easily fetching over £100 each if boxed. If you haven’t experienced either, I suggest you do. Prepare to be dazzled.