Fashionably Late: Back to the Future: The Game

BttF 1

Video games based on licenses from other media have long had a reputation for being extremely bad, and that reputation is definitely not undeserved. I remember many a frustrating weekend as a child where, for my weekly rental from the video store, I succumbed to my naiveté and picked out a game based on my favorite TV show or movie du jour, only to find myself stuck playing a subpar piece of crap for the next two days.

These games were typically made by toy companies who bought the rights to make a game the way they would buy the rights to make action figures, then handed the project off to a no-name developer, gave them a strict deadline and told them to have it ready to release on that date, whatever it took. In the case of movie-based games, that deadline often coincided with the release of the film in question, which meant that developers typically had less than a year to make something playable.

OK, "playable" might be a bit of a stretch...

OK, “playable” might be a bit of a stretch…

These titles weren’t all bad, mind you; there were exceptions. Most of the games based on Disney licenses were pretty solid, being developed first by Capcom (of Mega Man and Street Fighter fame), and later by Virgin Interactive. Konami made a few really good games based on Warner Bros. cartoons like Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Looney Tunes, and some great Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games.

Anything Star Wars or Indiana Jones-related was developed by LucasArts, so it was bound to be good. But for the most part, if a game was based on a TV show or movie, and it had any other publisher or developer’s logo on the box, it was in your best interest to stay far, far away.

These days licensed games have been making something of a comeback. Thankfully, this time around, parent companies seem to have realized that making a good game takes time–often as much time as making a movie, if not more–resulting in longer development times.

The projects themselves tend to be going to much more competent developers, as well. And with the advent of smartphone games, companies looking to use a game as advertisement for a movie are much more likely to hire a developer to make a cheap mobile title, cloning another successful game, than they are to crowd the console and PC market with low-quality material.

Additionally, now there are companies who are buying the licenses to old films and making strong games for the fans of these enduring franchises. Granted, some of these are still ill-advised cash-ins (the recent Rambo and Aliens games come to mind), but most are labors of love, developed by fans of the source material for fans of the source material, often featuring voice talent from the original cast or even original writers contributing to the story.

Just think of this the next time you fire up Borderlands...

Just think of this the next time you fire up Borderlands…

Telltale Games’ Back to the Future: The Game thankfully falls into the latter category. When the Back to the Future films were originally released, they received very poor treatment on the video game front; if you want more details on those abominations, James Rolfe (as his Angry Video Game Nerd character) released a video covering them in far greater detail than I could here.

But a few years ago, Telltale announced that they were partnering with Universal to adapt some of their classic movie properties into games, and one of these titles was Back to the Future. This was honestly some of the most exciting video game news I’d heard that year.

Telltale, for those who don’t know, is a company that’s sort of been acting as a spiritual successor to LucasArts’ old adventure game division. They’ve made new installments to both the Sam and Max and Monkey Island series, made a hilarious game based on the long-dormant Homestar Runner web cartoon, and recently they’ve been working on more serious fare with The Walking Dead (based on the awesome comic book, not the mediocre TV show) and Fables.

They are the company for graphic adventure games, or at the very least they’re neck-and-neck with Tim Schafer’s Double Fine, so they were a great choice to make this game.

As excited as I was to play this title (I bought the season pass as soon as it was released), I ended up getting side-tracked from it for a few years, mostly, I think, due to the episodic nature of its release. Telltale has this habit of releasing its games in downloadable form, through a series of episodes. All of the previous Telltale titles I played, I bought and played all the episodes at once. Back to the Future was the first one I started following from its release, and I quickly discovered that this format only served to allow me to be distracted by other games in between releases.

And that’s how it took me almost three years to play through one of my most anticipated games of 2010; from here on in, I think I’ll just stick to waiting on Telltale titles until all the episodes are released, then shotgunning them at one go. Hell, it works for Netflix, why mess with a good thing?

BttF 4

I suppose I could just take the DeLorean ahead a few months…

The story begins on a rather depressing note 7 months after the end of Back to the Future Part III. Doc Brown hasn’t been seen in Hill Valley since that time, and the bank is selling off his estate to cover his debts.

Marty, who is desperately trying to convince people that Doc is still alive, is surprised when another DeLorean time machine, identical to the destroyed original, arrives outside Doc’s house with Einstein (Doc’s dog) in tow. Inside the DeLorean, Marty finds a recorded message from Doc, saying that he’s stuck somewhere in the past, and that the new DeLorean’s auto-retrieval function sent it to seek out Marty for a rescue.

Marty must travel back to 1931, where Doc has been mistaken for the arsonist who burned down a speakeasy, and enlist Doc’s 1931 counterpart to help break Doc out of jail and save him from lethal reprisal at the hands of Biff’s gangster father, Kid Tannen. However, this series of events alters the timeline, forcing Marty and Doc to fix the damage they’ve done in order to prevent a horrible future and the destruction of Hill Valley itself.

And yes, young Doc is every bit as funny as you think he is.

And yes, young Doc is every bit as funny as you think he is.

It’s a fantastic story that feels right at home with the original trilogy (no doubt thanks to the involvement of trilogy screenwriter Bob Gale) and plays with the alternate timeline elements I love so much in Part II. The new characters introduced by the game feel like they belong with the returning ones, and the game is packed with the all the humor, witty writing and Easter eggs you’d expect from a Telltale game.

The gameplay is that of a classic graphic adventure title. Players control Marty, move him through the environment, and click on objects to examine them, collect them, and solve puzzles with them, or to talk to other characters.

To advance the plot, the player must solve puzzles, which usually involves some combination of talking to the right characters, using the right combination of items and working with simple logic. Most of the puzzles make enough sense that an experienced player can solve them easily, but a few of them are more tricky and could easily obstruct game progress.

Trust me, it's more exciting than it sounds.

Trust me, it’s more exciting than it sounds.

Fortunately, Telltale built in a hint system, which progressively gives more information on how to solve the current puzzle each time it’s used, before finally telling the player the answer if they’re truly stumped. Of course, a few of the puzzles are difficult not because the solution is hard to guess at, but because it’s hard to implement, requiring a series of specific actions in a row or requiring fairly precise timing to pull off, so the hint system is far from being a “win button.”

The controls, while generally simple and solid, do occasionally cause problems. A few puzzles in particular are difficult to solve on a console version of the game (I played it on my PS3), because of the game’s tendency to try to correct for the imprecision of using an analog stick (rather than a mouse) by having the selector automatically target items in the environment as Marty moves past them.

This auto-selection can result in you accidentally clicking an object you didn’t mean to click on, which presents a problem in some puzzles where the goal is to click a particular object at a particular time. Fortunately, there aren’t very many of these puzzles throughout the game, so the frustration level is pretty minimal, but it is still a minor issue that needs to be addressed.

Next I’ll talk about the graphics and sound design, but before that, I need to get something off my chest; I love Telltale’s games, but I really loathe the Telltale Tool engine they use to make them. I have never played a single game from Telltale that was without issues. Their games are, on balance, very simple both graphically and in terms of design, but you wouldn’t know that from the way the Telltale Tool struggles with them.

Framerates are wildly inconsistent regardless of the platform, which can cause cheap deaths in a few of their titles, and some of their games are very crash-prone; I still haven’t finished their Monkey Island game because it’s so prone to crashing on my PS3. Back to the Future is one of their more stable titles, but it still suffers from graphical hiccups and lag.

Someday, Guybrush...someday. *Sigh*

Someday, Guybrush…someday. *Sigh*

All that being said, I like the visual design of the game. Rather than try to make the game photorealistic (I shudder to imagine the uncanny valley versions of Marty and Doc), the game uses a caricature-like style to render its characters, and the environments are similarly colorful and cartoony. The graphics are simple, but they work, and aside from the aforementioned framerate issues, they’re quite pleasing to the eye. Nothing to write home about, but perfectly serviceable.

The sound design, on the other hand, is excellent. The soundtrack features several pieces from the films, including Alan Silvestri’s orchestral theme and “Back in Time” by Huey Lewis and the News, as well as some original compositions that, while not quite up to Silvestri’s standard of excellence, fit in unobtrusively with the rest of the score. The sound effects are likewise very good, and feature all the effects you’ll remember from the movies.

But perhaps the best aspect is the voice acting. The voice acting in Telltale’s games is always excellent, and while they had to bring in a number of sound-alikes to voice some of the returning characters, they did manage to get some key talent to reprise their original roles.

The biggest of these is Christopher Lloyd, returning to voice Doc Brown, and I’ve got to say, hearing Lloyd play Doc again makes the entire game worthwhile for me, and I looked forward to every interaction I had with Doc as a result of it. Claudia Wells, the original actress who played Jennifer Parker, also reprises her role, and does an excellent job of it.

Though she is a bit, uh, different this time around...

Though she is a bit, uh, different this time around…

Regrettably, Michael J. Fox apparently wasn’t available to reprise the role of Marty when production began on the game, but Telltale found an absolutely amazing sound-alike in A.J. LoCasio. He’s a dead ringer for how Fox sounded at that age, and it’s incredibly easy to forget that it’s not Fox voicing the character. But they were able to bring Fox in during the final episode to make a couple of fun voice cameos that I won’t spoil for you here; suffice it to say that if you are a fan of the films, you’re in for a real treat.

And really, that’s the best way to summarize this review; if you’re a fan of the Back to the Future trilogy, then this game was tailor-made for you. For all its flaws, there’s so much heart, wit and love for the source material on display that you just can’t stay mad at this game, even at its most annoying moments.

Developers take note; if you’re going to make a game based on a beloved film property, this is the way you should do it. My only real complaint is that, after the game’s (slight) cliffhanger ending, there is no firm word of a Season 2 yet. Maybe once Telltale is done with The Walking Dead or Fables, we might hear something. But still, if this is all we get, I think I’m satisfied.

Well, Halloween is fast approaching, and in the spirit of the season, I’m playing through a horror game. Join me next time for my own road movie through Hell…

Collateral Damage

Homeless Vet

Last week, as my mother and I were looking through a family photo album, she pointed out a picture of my great-grandfather in his military dress. I had always known he served in World War I, but that day I found out just how much his service cost him and his family.

After the war, because of the traumas he experienced on the battlefield, he suffered from life-long Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. My great-grandmother supported their family as a seamstress; her husband couldn’t hold down a job due to severe and chronic alcoholism. His illness and the way he attempted to cope with it overshadowed the rest of his life.

This kind of story was, and still is, all too common among veterans returning from active duty. In my great-grandfather’s day, it was called shellshock, and was frequently attributed to a “lack of moral fiber,” which was a military euphemism for “it’s your problem, not ours.” Today, we understand what Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is; psychologists have identified the causes, the symptoms, and even outlined effective treatments for it.

So why, then, are we still seeing so many soldiers needlessly suffering from PTSD? Why are we still seeing so many veterans becoming homeless after they are unable to re-acclimate to civilian life? Why are we still seeing horrific incidents like the murder-suicide committed by an Iraq war vet last Thursday? Why are more veterans dying from suicide than in combat? Why are there still so many veterans suffering silently, self-medicating, and just managing to get by the way my great-grandfather did?

Well, for one thing, while our government talks a good game about “supporting the troops,” it’s shown that political interest in “the troops” ends as soon as their deployment does. For a very long time, while Congress was quite happy to write check after check to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the tune of trillions of dollars, they were much more reluctant to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs and other programs that would help veterans returning from combat.

Recently members of Congress have introduced bills intended to direct more funding to help veterans, but predictably these bills have been caught in the gridlock of the least productive Congress in history, so I wouldn’t count on those agencies receiving more funding anytime soon.

However, Congressional double-talk and inefficiency isn’t the cause of this issue, but rather another symptom. The root cause is that, despite all the progress made in the field of psychology in identifying, analyzing and treating PTSD, societal perception of the problem doesn’t seem to have progressed very far beyond the “lack of moral fiber” days that my great-grandfather suffered through.

Mental illnesses like PTSD and clinical depression aren’t viewed in the same light as physical illnesses like influenza or cancer. They’re viewed, to a large extent, as a personal flaw, a character weakness, and stigmatized as such.

This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that most veterans are men, and men in our society are taught from a very young age that expressing discomfort or pain is a sign of weakness and femininity. This belief is especially reinforced by the internal culture of the military, where raw recruits who conform to the norms of modern society, where violence and killing are strictly verboten, are turned into soldiers who must be ready to follow orders without question and kill at a moment’s notice.

Is it any wonder, then, that these veterans, rather than seeking help for their condition, try to ignore the problem and stifle their feelings until it ends in tragedy?

Recently, Harry Potter actress Emma Watson, now the Goodwill Ambassador for U.N. Women, gave a speech announcing a new campaign for gender equality called HeForShe. In this speech, Watson discusses how the issue of “women’s rights” is, in fact, an issue of human rights that affects men equally.

“I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man…I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success.”

On hearing her words, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my great-grandfather, who suffered his whole life because his pain was considered an un-manly weakness, rather than the natural consequence of sending a young man to kill in the name of his government.

They made me think of how his pain must have affected my grandmother, in turn affecting her children, and in turn affecting my brother and me. It is a pain that echoes down through generations, simply because society told him that as a man, he couldn’t seek help.

Something’s got to give, people. Because if I have sons, I don’t want them to grow up in a world where they’re called weak for seeking help, any more than I want daughters growing up in a world where they’re told they can’t be strong. We have to speak up. We have to make a change, for our children, and our children’s children.

If not now, then when?

“Dear Boss,”

Aaron Kosminski

On Sunday, September 7th, news broke that caused a stir world-wide; Jack the Ripper, the notorious serial killer who terrorized London over a hundred years ago, had finally been identified as Aaron Kosminski, a hairdresser with schizophrenia who died in a mental asylum several years after the Ripper murders had ceased.

After years of fruitless police investigation and still more years of amateur, enthusiast detectives (affectionately referred to as “Ripperologists”) painstakingly researching the case, the Ripper finally stood unmasked, thanks to the brilliant detective work of Mr. Russell Edwards. Edwards, who purchased a shawl at auction that belonged to the fourth “canonical” victim, Catherine Eddowes, had the garment examined for DNA, and found seminal DNA linking Aaron Kosminski to the shawl. Case closed!

Or not.

Not even two days after the announcement, Ripperologists around the world weren’t so much poking holes in Edwards’ theory as they were driving semi-trucks through it.

The shawl has been known about for years but never conclusively linked to Eddowes except by a “family tradition” that makes less logical sense than Edwards’ argument itself. The DNA evidence is inconclusive at best; it’s mitochondrial DNA, which only proves that it came from a member of a large group of people to which Kosminski belonged, and that’s leaving out issues of contamination, the experimental method used to extract the sample, and the fact that previous DNA testing on the shawl failed to yield any results.

And then there’s Edwards himself, who owns and operates a Jack the Ripper souvenir shop in London, guides Jack the Ripper-themed tours, and made the announcement of his discovery just days before the release of his book Naming Jack the Ripper, detailing his theory about Kosminski. Put all that together, and it paints a pretty clear picture of a man parlaying a specious theory into a book to make money off of a dubious piece of “Ripperana” he bought at auction the better part of a decade ago.

And yet, despite the clear problems with the theory and how quickly after the announcement the counter-arguments have come out, there is still a large contingent of people who believe Edwards’ claims. The Jack the Ripper Wikipedia page, at the time of the announcement, was locked from editing for several days in an attempt to protect the information from an editing war that began almost as soon as the announcement was made. Even, the Ripperologist website that has led the effort to debunk Edwards’ claims, has a growing contingent of forum members who believe that Edwards has conclusively proved Kosminski to be the Ripper.

This is far from the first time a wild theory about the identity of Jack the Ripper has captured people’s imaginations, and it most likely won’t be the last, but it is a valuable, unfolding example of the power that the printed word has over the human mind.

When a “fact” is put into print from a source with some degree of authority, be it a book publisher, a newspaper or website or even an e-mail from a trusted friend, people are inclined to believe it, oftentimes without looking further into the matter or even reading beyond the headline. This means that many people never attempt to follow a story further and determine if it’s been retracted or corrected, not that it seems to matter either way, since misinformation continues to affect the brain long after correct information has been learned. So, regardless of how flawed his theory is, Edwards’ assertion that Kosminski is the Ripper will continue to be viewed as “fact” by a large percentage of the population.

And admittedly, in the grand scheme of things, Edwards’ claims won’t do that much damage. After all, he’s accusing a dead man (who was already considered a Ripper suspect) of committing murders that happened over a century ago. Even Kosminski’s family likely doesn’t remember much about him, given that he had no children and died alone in a Victorian mental institution.

But this undying quality of false information can be greatly damaging to society in other contexts. Thanks to a disproven study claiming that autism is caused by vaccinations, we’re seeing a resurgence of diseases like Rubella and Whooping Cough that were all but extinct as frightened parents cling to the old (mis)information and refuse to vaccinate their babies. Another (falsified) study led to millions of women undergoing post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy to protect themselves from cancer…a process that cost US citizens billions of dollars and may have actually increased cancer risks…and a process that is still widely advocated and available despite proof that it does more harm than good.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How about big business-funded studies to disprove climate change and justify industrial pollution? Or a misleading documentary that shut down a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting people from losing their homes to predatory mortgage lending? Or an infamous experiment that used doctored data to prove that we’re one issued order away from being the next Josef Mengele, thus re-shaping the entire field of psychology for the better part of a century? I could go on and on.

The bottom line is, our society has been shaped and damaged by false claims that continued to persist long after they were disproven, simply because it’s a hundred times harder to dispel a lie than it is to tell one in the first place. So while Edwards’ “little white lie” isn’t likely to do much damage in the grand scheme of things, the practice of abusing the authority of publication to advance one’s own selfish interests has done untold amounts of harm.

As such, every writer, reporter, documentarian and scientist has a duty to think beyond the moment, to consider what the consequences of our actions will be, and to examine the claims we are making for as long as it takes to verify them before unleashing them on the world. To do any less is unethical and irresponsible at best, and malicious at worst.

Fashionably Late: Final Fantasy IV: The After Years

After Years 1

Final Fantasy used to be my favorite video game series of all time, and several Final Fantasy games still rank among some of my favorites ever made. Almost every one of these games Square released was a mega-hit that surpassed the one that came before it, and even the ones that weren’t were interesting experiments. Final Fantasy, for a time, was the opus of Square’s catalog.

Now, I’ve briefly mentioned Square-Enix in this blog before and my distaste for the way they’ve handled some of their recent titles, specifically in the Final Fantasy series. Back in the 1990s, Square (pre-Enix; that merger wouldn’t happen until the early 2000s) was the developer for RPGs on consoles. But right around the time of the merger with Enix, Final Fantasy began to unravel.

The series’ budget had been ballooning for a while, but it really began to skyrocket starting with Final Fantasy X, and along with that increasing budget came a sense that Square was more interested in making a game that was marketable than a game that was good.

The stories and characters started to feel focus-tested for a teenage Japanese audience, and the gameplay became steadily less and less complex (though it’s worth noting that FFX’s combat system was probably the best in the series).

This trend culminated with the Final Fantasy XIII “trilogy” (yes, they made two sequels to one numbered sequel; I’ll get back to that in a minute), which dumbed the gameplay down to the point where the game barely demands (or seems to want) player input, and paired it with stories that are literally among the worst pieces of fiction I have ever encountered.

Each FFXIII game has seen steadily worsening sales, which has reportedly prompted Square-Enix to reconsider the path they’re taking with Final Fantasy. I sincerely hope this is the case, but given what has become of the series, I won’t be holding my breath.

However, in between FFX and the present, Square, desperate to stay afloat after the disastrous bomb that was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within destroyed the newly-formed Square Pictures and left the studio teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, accepted a loan from Sony and merged with long-time rival RPG maker Enix to stay afloat. Yet, this was still not enough to return the studio to profitability, and so they broke with long-standing tradition and decided to make a direct sequel to FFX.

Prior to this decision, each Final Fantasy game had been unrelated, plot-wise, to the previous installments. Though they shared common gameplay elements and the same creative team, each game had a different cast, world and story. However, hard-up for cash, Square-Enix decided to make a sequel to their mega-hit, Final Fantasy X, and thus Final Fantasy X-2 came to be, and opened the door for other direct sequels.

Never forget...oh, God, I wish I could forget...

Never forget…oh, God, I wish I could forget…

And like most sequels, the majority of these were terrible. FFX-2 was the first Final Fantasy that was almost universally agreed to be a genuinely bad game; it basically threw everything that was remotely good about the original game out the window and replaced it with fanservice, bad J-Pop, tedious mini-games and side-quests, and (somehow) an even worse localization.

But, riding on the hype of FFX and combined with the fact that the game re-used so many assets from FFX that it cost a fraction of what the first game did, FFX-2 was massively profitable for the newly-formed Square-Enix. As a result, almost all other FF sequels have followed suit.

That being said, there is one notable exception to this trend, and that is Final Fantasy IV: The After Years.

Originally released as a cell phone game before the iPhone made cell phone gaming an actual market with some viability, After Years eventually received a US release on the Wii as a downloadable title, and has since been ported to the PSP, iPhone and Android platforms.

And it’s no surprise that the game has performed well, selling more than 3 million downloads as of 2009; out of all the direct Final Fantasy sequels, After Years is the only one that somehow manages to truly capture the spirit of its predecessor; it feels as though it was written and designed by people who played and loved the original game just as much as fans did.

In brief, Final Fantasy IV (original released as Final Fantasy II in the US, due to the actual II and III not seeing localizations until the 2000’s) was Square’s first project on the Super Nintendo, and it also marked a substantial departure from the three games that came before it.

Final Fantasies I through III were among the earliest console-style RPGs, and told rather simplistic stories where the characters had little to no identity or personality. The characters in those titles were fully customizable; you got to choose their names and their roles in the party according to how you wanted to play the game. They were games more focused around the battle system and exploring dungeons than they were on telling an overarching narrative.

By contrast, Final Fantasy IV marked Square’s first foray into making a truly story-centric title. Its characters are non-customizable and have names and defined personalities and backgrounds and the plot is driven as much by the characters and their personalities as events.

Granted, its story is still rather simplistic and wouldn’t have been out of place in a typical Saturday morning cartoon at the time, and the original localization wasn’t much better than just running the game’s script through Babelfish, but that was still more ambitious than anything most other video games had attempted at that point. As a result, it had a tremendous impact on a generation of young gamers, and is still a beloved classic to this day.

Truly, the most quotable game since Super Mario Bros.

Truly, the most quotable game since Super Mario Bros.

So, Square-Enix and Matrix Software (After Years’ co-developer) had a lot to live up to in making a sequel. And surprisingly, rather than mess with a winning formula, they opted to make the sequel as much like FFIV as possible. In terms of visuals, gameplay, music, and even story structure, After Years borrows as much from its predecessor as it possibly can. And after having lived through the harrowing experience of popping a Final Fantasy X sequel in, only to be greeted by this:

I can’t adequately express how grateful I am that Square-Enix declined to re-invent the FFIV wheel and ruin it in the process.

The gameplay is almost identical to that of FFIV: you command a party of up to 5 adventurers, exploring an overworld map, towns and dungeons on your way to your next objective to advance the story. Along the way, you’ll be confronted by random monster encounters, as well as planned boss battles at the end of most areas. You issue orders to your party in turn-based battles, taking advantage of their unique abilities to formulate a strategy that will allow you to win.

The flow of the game is very basic, and the battle system is virtually identical to that of FFIV, save for a few key tweaks. the corners of my miiiind...

Memoriiiies…like the corners of my miiiind…

The Active Time Battle (ATB) bars that dictate when your characters go are now visible, much like they were in all subsequent FF titles that used that system, so it’s easy to tell when your characters will get their next turn. You can also see a visual representation of how long it will take a particular character to execute a command, which takes the guesswork out of planning around the casting of a particular spell or ability.

Another change is the Moon Phase system. As you play the game, the moon shifts through different phases; a shift will happen after enough time passes, or any time your party sleeps in a Tent, Cottage or Inn. Depending on what phase the moon is in, one kind of battle command with be strengthened, and another will be weakened; for example, under a Full Moon, physical attacks will be weakened, but Black Magic will become more potent.

The Moon Phase system adds an additional level of strategy to the game, as each party member will be more effective in particular phases, and players must plan around the phases to maximize their characters’ strengths. Also, monsters are subject to the phases of the moon as well, so a skilled player can weaken a tough boss monster and strengthen their own characters by fighting it during the correct phase.

I think the Moon Phase system adds a great deal of depth to the game, but it can be annoying having to waste Tents just to advance the moon to an advantageous phase, especially in the portions of the game where you’re stuck with a fixed party of characters.

The final major change to combat is the Band system. Anybody who’s played Chrono Trigger will be instantly familiar with this concept; the Band system allows characters to perform powerful team attacks, provided that all characters involved have enough Magic Points and are able to act.

Unlike Chrono Trigger’s Dual and Triple Techs, however, characters won’t instantly learn Bands simply by being in a party together and knowing the requisite skills; players have to manually try to discover Bands with those characters in a party together. On the one hand, I like the feeling of experimentation that this encourages.

On the other hand, pretty much anybody who picks this game up is just going to look up a list of Bands online, so the manual search aspect just becomes pointless busywork. Either way, I do enjoy the depth of strategy this opens up, especially once you’re able to choose your party members towards the end of the game and can decide how important Bands are to you when forming a team.

...Misty watercolor memoriiiies...of the way we weeere...

…Misty watercolor memoriiiies…of the way we weeere…

The graphics, sound and music are almost completely identical to FFIV’s as well. The character sprites have been completely redone (they look more akin to FFVI characters than FFIV), but the monster sprites, spell effects, towns and dungeons are almost all recycled from FFIV with minor tweaks and smoothing, and a few new locations and creatures added for good measure. The sound effects and music are also mostly recycled, with a few original melodies here and there.

I know that sounds incredibly lazy, and to be completely honest, it kind of is, but it actually does work with this game. After Years is all about revisiting the past, finding out where these characters have come in the intervening years, and having them revisit familiar locations and experience familiar sights and sounds is appropriate and feels right here.

And this game is very much a retro trip; when I say it plays almost exactly like FFIV, I mean it, including the high level of difficulty. The random encounter rates are through the roof, battles will wear your characters down and wipe them out if you don’t take the time to grind for experience and money every so often, and boss battles (as well as late-game regular battles) will quickly wipe the floor with you if you don’t react fast and with the appropriate strategy. In short, it’s very much an old-school RPG, and you’ll either like that or you won’t. Personally, I found it to be a welcome return to form.

While the game has a lot going for it, the one thing that really doesn’t work is the pricing. You see, the game is broken up into several chapters that must be bought piecemeal, each one dealing with a particular group of characters and telling their portion of the story. 

The WiiWare version of the game costs about $8.00, and that includes the first two chapters. Each subsequent chapter has to be purchased for an additional fee, adding up to a grand total of $37.00 for the whole game, which, for a title that’s essentially a glorified ROM-hack of FFIV (albeit an excellent one) is borderline extortion.

Frankly, I’d recommend picking up one of the other versions of the game over the Wii version if you’re interested; even the iOS version is a better deal at $15 (though I can’t vouch for how it controls with the touch-screen).

And it looks pretty good, too.

Hmm…22 bucks or touch controls…tough call.

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked much about the story so far. There’s a reason for that; namely, that it’s impossible to go too much into my thoughts about the story without revealing massive spoilers for both FFIV and After Years. And honestly, if I try to go too far into my thoughts on the story, I’d be writing this forever. I know because I started to do an analysis and it added roughly 3 pages to the review before I’d even begun to scratch the surface.

Suffice it to say that the story of After Years makes perfect sense in the context of where our characters were left 17 years prior with the end of FFIV. Everybody’s position and development in After Years fits their character perfectly. There are even some interesting reversals (Kain and Cecil, in particular, each end up in much the same position the other was during FFIV). And while the reveal of the game’s new villain is kind of odd and a bit cliche, ultimately I think it fits the story, and really, that’s the most important thing.

It's no weirder than Zeromus, at any rate.

It’s no weirder than Zeromus, at any rate.

These characters all feel like the same ones we fell in love with so many years ago, and the resolution to their stories feels satisfactory and more conclusive than the finale of FFIV did. And after suffering through sequels like FFX-2 and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children that completely butchered the characters whose stories they were supposed to be continuing, that’s incredibly welcome and refreshing.

If you’re a fan of Final Fantasy IV, definitely give this game a shot. It’s more of the same, and that’s a very good thing. If you aren’t a fan of Final Fantasy IV, then this won’t do anything to change your mind. If you haven’t played Final Fantasy IV…well, what are you waiting for? There are plenty of different re-mastered versions to choose from, so pick one up and play it!

Personally, I like the 2008 DS remake; it’s got the best localization, the best version of the combat system, and plenty of added secrets and side-quests to keep you busy. And if you don’t have a DS or 3DS, the 2008 version was recently released for iPhone and Android, so it’s easy to come by.

I’m still feeling nostalgic, so next time we’ll cover another game that’s a real blast from the past. Until next time!

(Constantly) Great Expectations

be kind

Regrettably, Robin Williams took his own life on August 11, 2014.

Williams was one of the most prolific actors and comedians of his generation, and his body of work speaks for itself, so I won’t damn the man with faint praise by attempting to eulogize him.

Looking around online at the moment, all I can find are articles singing Robin Williams’ praises. Yet, a similar search just a few months ago would have yielded very different results. While Williams proved himself as a brilliant performer several times over–both in comedy and drama–in recent years he had chosen to work on films that weren’t very well received.

Indeed, looking at Williams’ page on RottenTomatoes, he’s been in 29 films in the last 10 years, only 10 of which currently have a “fresh” rating on the site. And the public’s perception of Williams seemed to have shifted to reflect this.

Now understand, I’m not bringing this up to speak ill of the deceased, but rather to make a point. Many people seemed to regard Williams as a has-been, and treated him rather harshly when discussing his career trajectory. It’s only now, since Williams’ passing, that suddenly everybody seems to remember all his good work and sing his praises once again.

Really, this has nothing to do with Robin Williams, and everything to do with his audience, because I can name numerous actors that this has happened with. Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin and Chris Rock have all been taking heat from fans for the shift in their output from the comedy that made them famous to safe, family-friendly films. 

And even actors whose quality of work hasn’t diminished have fallen out of favor for incidents that have tarnished their public persona, such as Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson.

But I would bet any amount of money that as soon as any one of those actors passes away, there will be an immense outpouring from grieving fans remembering their past accomplishments. Suddenly, people who had taken these performers for granted will realize that they miss them.

So, if that’s the case, why can’t fans simply appreciate these performers now? Why wait? Why waste energy lamenting a favorite artist’s career trajectory, instead of appreciating the great work they’ve made in the past, and in many cases, continue to make now?

I realize society has always had a paradoxical relationship with celebrities; we elevate them to an exalted status, only to try and tear them down the moment they show any sign of human weakness and fail to live up to expectations. 

But from the outpouring of grief, support and remembrance surrounding Williams’ death, it’s obvious that underlying all of that antipathy lies a great deal of admiration, love and respect. After all, if we didn’t like what that performer or artist was doing, why did we elevate them to celebrity status in the first place?

Fixating on the foibles and flaws of great artists, especially to the exclusion of the enjoyment of their body of work, is a waste of mental energy and does nothing but harm the fan who does so. 

So for my part, I’m going to make a concerted effort to accept that nobody’s perfect, regardless of how much success they attain. I’m going to remind myself that artists, no matter their status, can make a piece (or a few) that are just not my bag. After all, as a author, I hope the same freedom will be afforded me one day.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Williams. And thank you for sharing so much with us.


Fashionably Late: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Wind Waker 1

Before I dive into this review, I’d like to take a moment to dedicate this write-up to my cats, Pepper and Panda, both of whom passed away recently while I was in the process of playing through Wind Waker. I can’t even begin to count the number of hours I’ve spent playing games with either Pepper or Panda warming my lap and feeding me purrs and positive vibes. Here’s to you, sweetie girls.

Pepper Panda

I briefly talked about my experience with Wind Waker in my review of Skyward Sword however, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about the context of Wind Waker’s release. When Nintendo released the Gamecube, it was a huge step forward in terms of hardware power and visuals from its predecessor, the N64.

That increase had Nintendo fans excited for what their favorite franchises would look like on this new system, perhaps none more so than fans of The Legend of Zelda. Prior to the launch of the Gamecube, Nintendo showed a hardware demo reel featuring animated videos of Nintendo characters rendered on the Gamecube; not actual game footage, mind you, just canned video running on the hardware.

One of these clips was of Link sword-fighting with Ganondorf in a realistic style, similar to how the characters were conceived in Ocarina of Time. This was the world’s first look at what a Gamecube Zelda title might look like, and it got fans excited. Sure, it honestly looks kind of crappy now, but back when this footage was released, it was cutting-edge; just as Ocarina had taken Zelda into the realm of 3D games, this new (hypothetical) game promised to make a much greater leap into the realm of realism.

Cut to a year later, and at Space World in 2001, Nintendo revealed another demo, this time one rendered in a cartoony, cel-shaded style. Unlike in the previous demo, Link was once again rendered as a child, and the visuals were bright, sharp and colorful, unlike the darker, dare I say, grittier demo of the previous year. This demo turned out to be the one that actually represented the new Zelda sequel, Wind Waker.

The new art direction, to put it mildly, was…divisive. Some fans loved it, but others were taken aback that the series’ visuals appeared to be going in a less realistic direction…and to be honest, I fell into the latter camp.

After all, video games are serious business.

After all, video games are serious business.

Chalk it up to the ironically youthful impulse to resist anything squarely targeted at children, but I felt like a bright, cartoony game starring a child character was a step in the wrong direction. The visuals didn’t put me off enough to keep me from trying the game, but they certainly didn’t help my opinion of it. And while the game was critically-acclaimed and sold three million copies (low by Zelda standards, but good for the time), many fans would go on to proclaim it the worst game in the series to date.

In my last review, I touched on what I call the “Mario 3 Effect,” where new Nintendo games are considered “failures” because they fail to live up to the standards set by an earlier title in their series. There’s a corollary phenomenon known as the “Zelda Cycle,” where in each new Zelda title is considered, at least by a vocal faction of fans, to be the “worst Zelda ever.”

Inevitably, a few years after the game’s release, this faction starts to relent and admit that the game is, in reality, actually pretty good. Then, by the time the next game releases, the previously-vilified title is considered brilliant and the new game inherits the distinction of “worst Zelda ever,” and the cycle continues ad infinitum. Wind Waker could very well be the poster child for the Zelda Cycle, with fans now recognizing the brilliance of the game’s art direction and admiring how well it’s aged over the years, especially compared to other games of the time.

And I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve changed my tune about “Celda.” The visuals of Wind Waker are one of the game’s strongest aspects. I played through the recently-released Wii U port of the game, Wind Waker HD, and it’s amazing to see how, with the addition of a few modern lighting effects and increased resolution, Wind Waker looks like a game that might have been developed one year ago instead of ten. There are some moments, when the light catches the scenery just right, where the game is truly breathtaking.

Wind Waker 3

Cartoon pigs never looked so good.

But as the age-old console gaming rallying cry goes, I don’t play pixels, I play games. The prettiest game in the world can still be terrible if the gameplay and story don’t hold up. So, enough about the visuals, how does Wind Waker hold up as a game?

I’ve written a brief primer on the Legend of Zelda series as part of my review of Skyward Sword, so if you missed that review, I’d suggest reading it over if you’re new to Zelda, because I’ve got a lot of ground to cover and don’t want to bore you with repeated material.

Basically,  in the Zelda chronology, Wind Waker takes place after Ocarina of Time, in a branch of the timeline where Ganon escapes imprisonment and wreaks havoc on Hyrule with his armies. No incarnation of Link steps forward to fight Ganon, and in desperation the Goddesses of Hyrule (apparently being big fans of the Old Testament) instruct the people of the land to flee to the highest mountains and flood the world, sealing Ganon’s forces under the waves.

This naturally lasts just long enough for the descendants of the original survivors to completely forget about Hyrule and Ganon, at which point Ganon manages to break out of imprisonment anyway, bring his monsters to the surface and attempt to re-unite the pieces of the Triforce in order to give him absolute power.

Part of his evil quest involves a scheme to kidnap girls with pointed ears, in hopes of finding the reincarnation of Princess Zelda, who still carries the Triforce of Wisdom. This leads to a girl named Aryll being abducted, who just so happens to be the sister of Wind Waker’s incarnation of Link, who goes on a quest to rescue her.

After a miserably failed attempt to assault Ganon’s fortress and save his sister (which includes the aforementioned forced stealth section), Link is rescued from drowning by a talking boat called the King of Red Lions. The King agrees to help Link rescue Aryll, in the process guiding Link through the necessary hoops to allow him to recover the Master Sword and claim the power to defeat Ganon once and for all.

He can be a bit of a jerk at times, though...

He can be a bit of a jerk at times, though…

The story is certainly serviceable, and Link meets a variety of interesting characters during his journey. I’m not as fond of this cast as I am of the cast of Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword, but there are some stand-out characters like the spunky pirate queen Tetra and her crew, Link’s grandmother and sister (aside from A Link to the Past, this is the only Zelda title where any members of Link’s family are actually present in the game), and possibly my favorite side character in any Zelda title to date, the comically under-enthused carnival game operator Salvatore.

The story also offers a bizarre glimpse into what happened to the races of Hyrule following the flooding of the world. The childlike Kokiri from Ocarina of Time apparently evolved into the tiny, tree-like Korok and learned to fly around with giant leaves, while the water-faring fish-like Zora instead became land-dwellers and learned to fly, becoming the bird-like Rito.

Evolution is weird in the Zelda universe.

Evolution is weird in the Zelda universe.

I will say that the game’s ending felt very weak to me; I’m still on the fence as to whether Wind Waker or Ocarina of Time has the worse finale, but neither of them really did anything for me (though to Wind Waker’s credit, the final battle with Ganon does end rather spectacularly).

As I discussed a while back in my post on the ending of Red Dead Redemption, a weak ending really undercuts the strength of the overall story, especially in the case of an epic fantasy tale like Wind Waker, so this is definitely one of my biggest problems with the game.

As for the gameplay, while the core overworld-to-dungeon flow of play mostly remains intact, it’s shaken up by a much greater emphasis on overworld exploration. As mentioned previously, Hyrule has become a series of islands on the ocean, and much of Wind Waker’s gameplay revolves around sailing the King of Red Lions from island to island, discovering new islands, filling in Link’s Sea Chart, and exploring these islands for hidden treasures.

There’s also a lengthy sidequest revolving around Link obtaining Treasure Charts, which show the locations of hidden treasures in the waters near these islands, which Link must salvage from the ocean floor. On paper it sounds rather tedious, but I actually found it to be the most exciting, enjoyable part of the game, charting the world, exploring strange new lands and hunting treasure. It’s one of the best open world concepts I’ve come across in a video game and it’s something I’d dearly love to see replicated in future Zelda titles, in spirit if nothing else.

Anybody else hear the "Pirates of the Carribean" theme? No? Just me, then?

Anybody else hear the “Pirates of the Carribean” theme? No? Just me, then?

As for the more traditional Zelda-style gameplay, it’s as satisfying as ever here. While the dungeon design and boss battles aren’t as brilliantly done as those of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, they’re still good and will put your puzzle-solving skills to the test. Sword combat is fleshed out a little more than it was in Ocarina of Time, but it’s still not up to what it would become in TP and SS. Defeating most enemies is more dependent on clever use of items than it is on swordplay.

Speaking of, the item selection is noteworthy in Wind Waker, in that it has one of the smallest inventories I’ve seen in a Zelda game, but each item has multiple applications and uses. For example, bombs function as on-foot demolitions and ammo for the King of Red Lions’ cannon, while the Grappling Hook is used for swinging and climbing through the environment, for stealing from enemies, and for treasure salvage.

It’s very thrifty from a game design standpoint, and it makes each item feel more important, unlike some Zelda titles where items are used in one particular dungeon and then almost never again (looking at you, Spinner).

Future game developers, take note: if Mega Man couldn't make tops cool, nothing can.

Future game developers, take note: if Mega Man couldn’t make tops cool, nothing can.

Also, the game has one useful feature that makes running through the dungeons less of a headache. One big problem that the Zelda games have always had was a limited number of continue points; when you save and quit your game in most Zelda titles, while it saves your progress, Link will only re-appear at a handful of overworld locations, or the entrance to the dungeon you were working on.

So unless you can take the time to go through a dungeon in one shot, you’re going to wind up doing some backtracking, which is a hassle. Skyward Sword finally introduced save points to the series, something that I hope they keep in the next installment, since it allowed you to save, quit, and return to a dungeon at the last point you left off.

Wind Waker still starts you over at the beginning of the dungeon when you load a save, but it makes a concession to people with lives beyond video games in the form of warp pots. These are a series of three pots that, as you progress through the dungeon, you can open up, with one at the beginning of the dungeon, one at the midpoint, and one right before the boss chamber. So, if you have to save and quit in the middle of a dungeon, you can jump into the warp pot near the entrance and end up much closer to where you left off. It’s a helpful feature, and one that’s curiously absent in the next game in the series,Twilight Princess.

The controls are very solid overall; from movement to combat to sailing, Link moves responsively and quickly. Having three mappable item buttons is nice (especially after playing through Skyward Sword, which only had one button for items), though I found myself having to change my item load-out very frequently. And playing Wind Waker after Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, I cannot emphasize enough how much having a controllable camera mapped to a thumbstick improves the Zelda experience.

There were a few context-sensitive commands that didn’t detect my movements as well as I would have liked and led to more than a few cheap falls and failures in the game’s forced stealth segment (which was, admittedly, easier than I remembered), but all in all, the controls and core gameplay are very solid. And the additions to the Wii U version, namely the touchscreen menus and gyroscopic aiming mechanics, worked beautifully and added a great deal to the overall experience.

Yeah, Nintendo, if you could leave this out of future Zelda titles, that would be great.

Yeah, Nintendo, if you could leave this out of future Zelda titles, that would be great.

The sound design and music were strong, as always. There are some excellent renditions of classic Zelda tunes as well as some catchy new songs (I’m particularly fond of the theme from Dragon Roost Island). Much like its visuals, sound design is one area where Wind Waker stacks up very favorably against other Zelda titles I’ve played.

So, what’s my final verdict? I’d say that Wind Waker ranks fourth on my list of Zelda titles that I’ve finished, below Skyward Sword but ahead of Ocarina of Time. In terms of mechanics and story, I don’t like it quite as much as some of the other titles in the series.

However, with excellent visuals, a strong score, and an unparalleled sense of freedom and exploration, Wind Waker is very much a worthy addition to the Zelda series, and I’d heartily recommend it to any fans out there. It has its own special charm that makes it an experience that’s much more than the sum of its parts. And for those who own a Wii U, I’d definitely recommend the HD edition.

Seeing as this is the third Nintendo game in a row I’ve reviewed, I think I’m going to take a break from the Big N for a little while and shift focus to another developer–one whose work dominated my youth with great games, but fell victim to bad game design and poor writing. I’m going to have to take a literal trip to the dark side of the moon to find another good game from them. See you soon!

Writing: A Team Effort

A booth with a view.

A booth with a view.

Two weekends ago I attended Tokyo in Tulsa to promote my novel, The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship! It was a busy three days–my first con appearance–and I was happy to meet many people and talk about the book with them.

I’ve been writing for nearly 20 years now, but promoting a book is something entirely different, so this was a brand new experience for me. I was excited to see so much interest and excitement about my work. I left the con feeling energized and excited about reaching out to new readers and continuing the Bobcat series as a whole!

However, the con wasn’t all about handing out promo material and making pitches. I was able to get away from the table long enough to attend some panels on writing and publishing. 

These presentations were hosted by RPG writer Stephen Radney-McFarland, anime ADR director, voice actor and adaptive screenwriter Terri Doty, publisher Carlos Moreno of Falkor Publishing, and Falkor’s newest published author, Steven Mix, writer of the zombie apocalypse novel Goodbye from the Edge of Never (buy it here!). There were laughs, excitement, insight into all kinds of facets of writing across multiple industries. All in all, it was a great time.

But between working the Bobcat booth with my wife/manager Okcate, our cover artist Tallulah and my brother Jacob, and listening to what Stephen, Steven, Terri and Carlos had to say, I came to a realization about writing, and it’s one that I’m not sure most people get. 

When we hear the word “writer,” most of us probably have the same image; some lone, iconoclastic figure, sitting at a desk, scribbling away with a pen or tapping at a typewriter or a word processor. We picture Edgar Allen Poe or Stephen King pouring their tortured souls out onto the page all by themselves, or J.D. Salinger alone in his house, writing reams for himself and nobody else.

Whoever pops into your head, they probably have one thing in common; much like every hard-boiled detective ever written, they work alone. The writer as a popular figure is envisioned as somebody who shapes people and worlds in isolation on their own, with nobody to help them. 

And at Tokyo in Tulsa, I learned that image could not be more wrong.

Now, I’ve worked with my team for some time now, but TnT taught me just how many people it takes, putting in hours of time and effort, to see a story through to publication. No book you have ever read made it straight into your hands directly from only the writer. It went through editors, likely several of them, poring over the text, looking for problems with grammar, syntax and (if the writer/publisher are doing their jobs right) continuity and story. 

The layout, design, and cover art were provided by people who specialize in making books look just right. Promoters and advertisers tirelessly worked their butts off to help the author get the word out, and make you, the reader, aware that there was a book available for purchase in the first place.

While a writer may create the content, he relies on other people to mold it, to refine it to its purest form, and to dress it up and make it presentable for the general public. In other words, a writer needs a team to help make his work the best it can be. And perhaps more importantly, he needs readers to appreciate it.

So, thank you to Okcate, Tallulah and Jacob for all your help at the convention, and everything else you’ve done to make The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship into something worth reading. And thank you to everybody who stopped by our booth to talk us; I hope you enjoy the book.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’d better get back to work. After all, I have a team I don’t want to let down.


Fashionably Late: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga

Mario & Luigi 1

Okay, I know I hinted in the last review that I would be reviewing The World Ends With You as my next Fashionably Late game. It’s a game that I got from my brother years ago as a Christmas present that I still haven’t finished (sorry, Jake), but I got sidetracked from that title.

I plan to come back to it, but in the meantime, I’m reviewing another game that my brother introduced me to years ago that I never finished until now; a game, appropriately enough, about two brothers: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.

It’s impossible for me to talk about Mario & Luigi without first talking about the title that kicked off Nintendo’s franchise of Mario role-playing games, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Back in 1996, before they were alienated by Nintendo’s decision to stick with the cartridge format for games on the soon-to-be-released Nintendo 64, Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) released all their games on Nintendo systems.

Many people bought a Super Nintendo for such classic Square games as Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger just as much as they bought one to play Mario titles. Eventually, the two companies decided to do a collaboration, and the result was Super Mario RPG, a console-style RPG starring Mario characters.

SMRPG is one of my favorite video games of all time. It’s a charming game with excellent graphics, memorable characters, delightful music and exciting gameplay. But more than that, SMRPG was a hugely influential game for me. It introduced me to the genre of roleplaying games, which is still one of my favorite game genres.

Even the sewer level was fun!

Even the sewer level was fun!

Without SMRPG, I might never have played titles like Final Fantasy VII, Parasite Eve, Lost Odyssey, Xenoblade Chronicles, Radiant Historia,The Last Story, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Fallout 3. I might never have tried my hand at tabletop roleplaying. More than most other games, SMRPG had a huge impact on my life, so its successors had a lot to live up to.

This legacy, however, created its own set of problems. Nintendo is one of the oldest companies in the game industry, and it has some of the longest-running franchises in the history of video games. That’s impressive, especially in today’s climate where game franchises often don’t last for more than one console generation, but it does have its drawbacks. 

Once one of Nintendo’s franchises hits a high point, many people consider any sequels they release to be inferior to that early game. I call this the “Mario 3 Effect,” after Super Mario Bros. 3, which is generally considered to be the best Mario action title ever released (though “Mario 64 Effect” would also be applicable).

And the Mario RPG franchise definitely falls prey to this pattern, at least for me. Rather than team up with Square again and make another title in the vein of Super Mario RPG, Nintendo instead had Intelligent Systems, developers of Fire Emblem, do their own take on a Mario RPG. The result was Paper Mario, a game so named for its art style, which used flat, 2D sprites in a 3D polygonal environment, resulting in “paper” characters. 

Even Bowser is shocked they're re-hashing this plot again.

Even Bowser is shocked they’re re-hashing this plot again.

Now, Paper Mario was by no means a bad game; it’s certainly a fun title in its own right. But it dumbs down the already-simplified RPG elements from SMRPG, replaces the fairly complex plot from SMRPG with yet another variation on the “Bowser kidnaps the Princess” storyline, and portrays a world that, while charming and fun in its own way, lacks the grand scale and quirkiness of SMRPG’s world and its inhabitants. In short, while good, it underperformed my expectations.

The Paper Mario franchise would continue in 2004, with the release of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, which was an improvement on the original PM game with a much better story and a new land to explore, and later with Super Paper Mario and Paper Mario: Sticker Star, which, curiously, stripped down the RPG elements even further. But in the meantime, Nintendo, with developer Alpha Dreams, released a portable branch to the franchise for the Gameboy Advance in 2003, titled Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, which spawned its own series of sequels for the DS and 3DS.

I originally played M&L when it came out back in 2003, borrowing my brother’s copy of the game. I ended up putting it aside partway through and not returning to it until recently, when I played through it again as a re-release on the Wii U’s Virtual Console service. And playing it again, I can understand why I gave up on it at the time. Mario & Luigi is a very different game from its sister series, and this is both a good and a bad thing.

The plot centers around a (naturally) never-before mentioned neighboring nation to the Mushroom Kingdom called the Bean-Bean Kingdom. An ambassador from the Kingdom arrives in the Mushroom Kingdom, ostensibly on a goodwill mission to meet with Princess Peach. However, when the ambassador arrives, she reveals herself as the evil witch Cackletta (along with her malaprop-spewing sidekick, Fawful), and steals Peach’s voice, replacing it with a voice so hideously awful, Peach’s speech becomes literally explosive.

Princess Peach literally dropping F-bombs.

Princess Peach, dropping some F-bombs.

Naturally, it falls to Mario to pursue Cackletta back to the Bean-Bean Kingdom, thwart whatever designs she has for Peach’s voice, and fix the princess’ pipes (wakka-wakka!). Surprisingly, Bowser allies himself with Mario and agrees to give him a lift to Bean-Bean on his Doomship, on the grounds that if Bowser were to kidnap Peach in her current state, she could destroy his castle just by screaming. And Luigi, who initially plans to let his brother do the rescuing, gets mistaken for one of Bowser’s troops and dragged onto the Doomship, so he’s along for the ride, too.

I will say that the plot is actually one of M&L’s strong points; it starts off rather unpredictably and has a number of twists and turns that keep you guessing up until the final act. It’s not the most complex plot I’ve seen in a video game by any means, but it’s practically Inception by Mario standards.

Like Paper Mario, Mario & Luigi puts you in control of two party members, the titular Mario Brothers. However, while Paper Mario had a large cast of party members who joined Mario in his quest, Mario only has his green-garbed brother to rely on in M&L. And the entire game is designed around the concept of the brothers working as a team.

For starters, the player controls both brothers simultaneously; on the world map, Mario and Luigi move around in a short conga line, with either brother able to be swapped into the lead position, and the A and B buttons each controlling one of the brothers’ actions. At the beginning of the game, Mario and Luigi only have their trademark jumping abilities at their disposal, but as their quest progresses, they get access to progressively stronger hammers, as well as elemental “hand” powers, with Mario getting to shoot fire from his hand and Luigi mastering lightning.

These abilities are used to solve environmental puzzles, with jumps being used to traverse platforms and hit switch blocks, hammers being used to shatter boulders and hit wall switches, and the “hand” powers lighting torches and powering dynamos. Additionally, Mario and Luigi learn to use these abilities as a team, which expands the puzzle-solving out even further.

Trust me, Luigi's not just working out years of frustration here...

Trust me, Luigi’s not just working out decades of frustration here…

For example, Mario can team up with Luigi to spin like a helicopter and take a flying jump over large gaps, while Luigi can bounce on Mario and reach higher ledges. Mario can hit Luigi with a hammer to pound him into the ground and let him pass under obstacles, while Luigi can squish Mario down with his hammer and let him enter small gaps. These “Bro Techniques” become a means of opening up the world map even further and exploring previously unreachable places, as well as solving some nasty puzzles.

All of this carries over into the combat as well; whenever Mario and Luigi enter battle against an enemy (who are visible on the world map and can be preemptively struck, just like in Paper Mario), the player controls Mario with the A button and Luigi with the B button. Combat is turn-based, and each brother’s menu is controlled with their respective button.

Mario and Luigi each have access to all the abilities they have available on the field, including their jump, hammer and hand abilities (each enemy in the game being vulnerable to specific types of damage), as well as their Bro Techniques, which allow Mario and Luigi to double-team an enemy for extra damage and special effects, similar to Chrono Trigger’s Dual and Triple Techs.

The Bros Attacks can look...awkward out of context.

The Bros Attacks can look…awkward out of context.

The combat system also retains the “action commands” which have long been a staple of the Mario RPGs. In essence, this means that by performing a specific action at the right time, Mario or Luigi can increase the damage of their attacks, or by jumping an attack or parrying it with a hammer, they can avoid taking damage or even counter-attack.

Again, Mario and Luigi’s action commands are each controlled with their respective button, so the player needs to learn to read enemy movements and correctly command Mario or Luigi (or sometimes both at once) to avoid attacks to prevent them from taking damage. It’s a system I’ve always liked, because it keeps battles engaging where they can often become a tedious chore in RPGs, and Mario & Luigi takes it even further.

Visually, M&L is a gorgeous game. The sprites are bright, colorful and well-animated. Mario and Luigi never speak a word of dialogue (well, Luigi actually does speak, but he’s disguised as somebody else at the time, so that doesn’t really count), but their expressions convey enough personality and emotion that it doesn’t really matter.

The environments are creatively designed and the other characters are interesting to look at; in particular, the Koopalings have some surprisingly well-designed sprites, considering that this was their first game appearance in more than 10 years (though strangely, they don’t have a single line of dialogue).

Looking good, kids!

Looking good, kids!

The music, however, is rather disappointing…which is surprising, because it’s composed by Super Mario RPG composer and video game music powerhouse Yoko Shimomura, who ranks alongside such luminaries as Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda as one of my favorite game composers. The issue isn’t that Shimomura’s tunes are bad; they’re certainly serviceable, even if they don’t measure up to some of her other work, and certain pieces, like the battle music and boss battle themes, are certainly catchy.

I think the main issue is that these pieces are short and loop a lot…though I’m not sure why, as there are plenty of other titles on the Gameboy Advance that have many lengthy BGMs. The short, repetitive nature of a lot of the tunes got on my nerves at times, which didn’t help my enjoyment of the game.

Story-wise, the game is a mixed bag for me. On one hand, as I said, the story is much more complex and involved than other entries in the series. On the other, there aren’t as many memorable, interesting characters as there have been in other Mario RPG titles. There are stand-out characters such as the noble Prince Peasley, villains Cackletta and Fawful, and comic-relief villain Popple, but the cast pales in comparison to games like SMRPG and Thousand-Year Door, with the memorable characters they introduced in almost every location you went to.

Sorry, Fawful, but I call 'em like I see 'em.

Sorry, Fawful, but I call ’em like I see ’em.

On the subject of locations, while the ones that appear in M&L are pretty interesting, there aren’t many of them, and you’ll be backtracking to locations to re-visit them frequently, which makes the game feel very small in scope. I’m not sure if it’s entirely fair of me to pick on the game on that last point since it is a portable game, but it is what it is.

Another thing that bothered me about this game, plot-wise, is how it treats the character of Luigi. Now, up until recently (as of the time of the game’s release), Luigi hadn’t been playable in a main Mario title for several years, and this was his first appearance in a Mario RPG as a main character. But the way the developers decided to deal with him was by treating him as cowardly comic relief. This sort of expands on Luigi’s characterization in his first solo game, Luigi’s Mansion, where he spent most of his time scared out of his mind…because he was in a haunted mansion! There, the portrayal of Luigi as a scaredy-cat made sense.

But here, the developers decided to expand that schtick further to the point where Luigi is afraid of everything, and would be more than happy to ignore the call to adventure and let Mario handle dangers for himself if circumstances permitted. Sadly, this seems to be the interpretation of the character that Nintendo has stuck with over the years, turning Luigi into an overlooked, under-appreciated joke. It just rubs me the wrong way with its mean-spiritedness, even if it can be funny at times.

As you can see, I'm a bit of a fan.

As you can see, I’m a bit of a fan.

And while I praised the game design earlier, I have to contradict myself a bit when I say that this game becomes something of a chore to play towards the end. The last few dungeons of the game become massive marathons of tricky puzzles and battles that can easily party-wipe you if you’re not an expert at dodging attacks and well-stocked with healing items. Now, I’m not one to complain about difficulty in a game, provided the difficulty curve is well handled, but in M&L, the difficulty spikes so sharply towards the end of the game that it’s astounding.

This difficulty spike is compounded by the fact that, like later Paper Mario games, M&L eliminates or downplays a lot of RPG elements. Presumably this is done in an effort to simplify the game and appeal to a wider audience, but a lot of times this streamlining leaves the game with features that feel more vestigial than functional.

For example, there are only a few equipment and item shops in the game, to the point where I almost wonder why they bothered to keep equipment in the game at all, since the scaling of power is minimal and you can go for hours of game time without ever upgrading your armor or badges.

This issue is also exacerbated by the fact that one of the brothers’ core statistics, the ‘Stache attribute, gives Mario and Luigi a discount at shops…which is great, until you realize that there’s not a lot of shopping to do in the game and you’ll rarely be short on money, even with a lower ‘Stache score.

Fun fact: Tom Selleck's Stache score is 255.

Fun fact: Tom Selleck’s Stache score is 255.

There are also no inns to rest up at and restore your health and Bros Points (the resource that powers your Bro Techniques in battle), which discourages the player from using special techniques regularly and leveling them up, removing a lot of depth from combat. This shortcoming, combined with the emphasis on timed attacks and dodges, results in a combat system that rewards fast reflexes and timing more than planning and strategy, which may be preferable for some people, but left me wanting something a bit more cerebral.

All in all, Mario & Luigi is a solid game, certainly good enough for me to want to play its sequels when I get the chance. But it still pales in comparison to the game that started it all, Super Mario RPG, and leaves me wondering if one of my favorite games of all time will ever get a truly worthy successor. Unfortunately, at this point it seems like no amount of wishing on a star will ever make that dream come true.

Hero Worship at Tokyo in Tulsa


A little less than a year ago, I debuted The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship to my first live audience and reflected on what an experience that was. After doing some more appearances since then–some planned, some on the fly, (note to authors: keep a digital copy of your work accessible on your smartphone; you never know when a spot at a showcase will open up) I have actually begun to dig the whole public reading thing.

As of today, I am looking forward to my very first con appearance at Tokyo in Tulsa in July, 2014. I’ll not only be talking about the current novel, but I’ll also have news about the soon-to-be released second book. Please come by my booth and support me as I step into another role–promotor. I’ll be the brand new author sweating bullets. See you there!

Post-E3 Reflections 2014

It’s E3 time! Again…

Last year, I wrote my first real post to my blog about my thoughts on E3 2013. Since E3 continues to have significance as a kind of holiday among video game fans, and since this month marks the one-year anniversary of my blog, I thought I’d talk about my thoughts on this year’s E3 conference.

To avoid rambling like last year (first blog post and all) I’ll go over each of the major conferences in chronological order, talk about anything I found noteworthy (or not), and then I’ll close out with a summary of my thoughts. Let’s dive right in:


While I haven’t made a secret of the fact that Microsoft drove me away as a fan about halfway through the Xbox 360’s tenure, and I have no plans to ever buy an Xbox One, I will try to be objective here and talk about what I thought was intriguing and what wasn’t, instead of just writing the whole conference off.

First off, I have to give Microsoft credit for covering games and only games at their E3 presser.  This decision alone made it one of the best conferences they’ve had in years. Their fumbling attempts to rope in both casual players and enthusiasts with their presentations for the last few years has led to some absolutely painful, boring conferences, and I’m glad they decided to stick with things that the crowd who actually tunes into these conferences will be interested in.

And Microsoft featured a few games that actually did pique my interest. Sunset Overdrive, the latest game from Sony alum Insomniac, looks colorful, bombastic and exciting. It’s a nice change of pace from their last outing, Fuse, where they let the pressure of industry trends turn what could have been a unique shooter with a lot of personality into something incredibly generic, and stylistically it’s like nothing else on Xbox at present.

Additionally, Microsoft had one of the biggest surprises at the show (at least for me), when they announced a sequel/remake to Phantom Dust, the original Xbox exclusive arena fighter/CCG. They only showed a CGI cutscene teaser for it (I’ll talk more about this later), but the fact that they’re even releasing a new game in the franchise is kind of amazing in this day and age, since the original Phantom Dust’s sales were…underwhelming, to be kind.

They also announced an exclusive game from one of my favorite studios, Platinum Games, called Scalebound. Again, another CGI trailer with no gameplay whatsoever, but I’m kind of surprised that Microsoft would reach out to Platinum for an exclusive; as much as I love Platinum’s games, they certainly aren’t system-sellers for most people and outside of a loyal cult following, they tend not to sell that well, especially among Xbox die-hards.

And that’s it for the positives. For the rest of what got featured at Microsoft’s conference, my response was “don’t care” or “I can get it on another platform.” This is the primary reason I gave up on Xbox; there just isn’t enough there that interests me to warrant a purchase, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon.


Ubisoft had exactly one game to show that I cared about: Valiant Hearts: The Great War. It’s a 2D adventure game, similar in mechanics to Double Fine’s recent title The Cave and animated in a storybook style using the UbiArt engine that powers Rayman Legends. It purports to tell the story of five individuals who save the life of a soldier in World War I, supposedly based on actual letters from these people sent during the war.

Ordinarily I detest war games. As someone who comes from a long line of veterans, I find it offensive to turn actual war into a perpetual toy for people to play soldier with online. I don’t even like war movies (with very few exceptions) for similar reasons. But Valiant Hearts looks to be taking a different approach and telling a meaningful, heart-felt story about the war in an artistically tasteful way, not unlike how Art Spiegelman’s Maus tells the story of the Holocaust through cartoon analogues of mice, cats and pigs. So Valiant Hearts is one title I’ll be watching with great interest.

Everything else was boring to me: sequels to franchises I’m not interested in, new IPs that I equally don’t care about (most of which were featured at Sony and Microsoft’s conferences anyway), fitness and dance games. In other words, typical Ubisoft. 


Given EA’s track record of late, anything positive I have to say in this segment comes with the unstated caveat of “…if they don’t mess it up.” So just bear that in mind.

That said, there were a few games in EA’s conference that did interest me. The first is Battlefield: Hardline, which uses the Battlefield 4 engine to make a cops-and-robbers tactical shooter. As much as I detest war shooters and movies, I’m actually a big fan of heist films and cop films and the few games that have attempted to utilize that kind of setting, so this is one Battlefield title I might be interested in picking up…after I’m sure that the online is working correctly.

Second is a new Mirror’s Edge game. Now, I still need to play the original Mirror’s Edge, but I was intrigued by the first-person parkour title when it came out, and the sequel (what they showed of it) looks to be in much the same vein. When I get around to trying out the original game, I might give Mirror’s Edge 2 a shot if I like what I see.

Finally, there’s the new Dragon Age game, Dragon Age: Inquisition. I loved the first Dragon Age, and I own and have played (but not beaten) its divisive sequel. I’ve been a big fan of BioWare’s work since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on the original Xbox, but I’ve noticed that their work seems to have declined in quality or at least shown more problems since EA bought them out. So, I’ll be approaching this one with caution.

As for the rest, it was just sports games and sequels to franchises that aren’t up my alley. 


Aside from their decision to showcase Playstation-exclusive TV and movie stuff, Sony’s conference was very similar to Microsoft’s; a few games I’d like to play, a lot that I probably won’t  or that are going to be available elsewhere. Having said that, there were definitely some games at the Sony conference that caught my attention.

First, Sony announced a new stand-alone DLC for Infamous: Second Son, sort of like what they did with Infamous: Festival of Blood a few years ago. I think that’s a cool idea. If/when I get a PS4, I’ll definitely be picking up Second Son and downloading this DLC. Not much else to say on that front.

Second is LittleBigPlanet 3. I like the first two LBP titles, and this new game looks to be pretty cool, adding new characters with new abilities and promising to port over all the user-created levels from LBP 1 and 2 with improved visuals…though the visuals are one thing that left me kind of scratching my head. I’ve complained before that a lot of the games for the PS4 and Xbone look like they could have been achieved on the PS3 and 360 with a minimal downgrade in visuals, but this is especially true for LBP 3. It looks almost identical to LBP 2, and really does nothing to justify the new hardware. I know LBP has never been a visual showcase, but it’s such a transparent move to sell more PS4s that I can’t help but roll my eyes at it.

Third is a new game from gonzo action game developer Suda51, titled Let It Die, which is going to be exclusive to PS4. It was just a teaser trailer that showed no gameplay, but I’m a fan of Suda51’s work, so on one hand, I’m definitely intrigued by this one…on the other hand, it’s since been revealed that the game is going to be both always online and “free to play,” which are major no-nos for me in a console title, so I’m very much on the fence.

Fourth is a title called No Man’s Sky, a “procedurally-generated” space exploration game that’s supposed to create new content as players explore the game’s universe. I’ve heard this kind of hype before from games like Spore, so I’m more than a little skeptical, but the footage they showed did look very nice. I’ll be interested to learn more about this one as it comes out.

Finally, there was a teaser trailer for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. I’m a big fan of the Uncharted series (in fact, I’m sitting next to a curio cabinet holding my limited edition Nathan Drake figurine as I write this), but this was just a CGI teaser trailer and showed no gameplay footage whatsoever. Beyond showing that Uncharted 4 is on-track for a 2015 release, there really isn’t much more to say about this one.

As for the rest of what Sony showed, it was all either third-party titles that will be available elsewhere, new IPs that don’t interest me (The Order: 1886 comes to mind) or CGI teasers that didn’t do anything other than announce the fact that a game was in development. 


As you may know, I’m definitely a Nintendo fan, and the Wii U is the only 8th generation console I currently own. Having said that, I think Nintendo had, hands-down, the best presentation of all three console makers at this year’s E3.

There was no plugging of third-party titles with exclusive DLC, no talk about TV shows or movies, just tons of exclusive games and content, coupled with great, funny presentation, including sketches by the creators of Robot Chicken and a Matrix-esque kung fu battle between Nintendo President Satoru Iwata and Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime. If you like Nintendo at all and you haven’t seen it yet, clear thirty minutes or so from your schedule and give it a watch. I promise you it’s worth your time.

There was new footage and information on previously announced titles, including Hyrule Warriors, the newly-christened Yoshi’s Wooly World, new Smash Bros info, the Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire remakes, Xenoblade Chronicles X and Bayonetta 2 (which will ship with Bayonetta 1 on the same disc). And there were a ton of surprise announcements, including a new game based on the Captain Toad levels from Super Mario 3D World, a stunning first look at the upcoming Legend of Zelda game, a sequel to Kirby: Canvas Curse for the Wii U, a Mario level-creation game, and a brand-new third-person shooter called Splatoon that looks pretty exciting.

Nintendo also unveiled their previously-discussed NFC figurine toys, which they’re calling “amiibo.” These are little figurines of Nintendo characters that, similar to Skylanders toys, when brought into contact with the Wii U Gamepad’s NFC reader (or an upcoming NFC peripheral for 3DS), will enter that character into the game and allow it to interact with the game and player in unique ways. Amiibo is going to be supported by a number of titles, the first of which will be Super Smash Bros, which will launch along with the figurines. I’m not sure how much I, as a 29-year-old man, will get out of this new toy line, but it’s pretty cool-looking and I’m sure it’ll print money for Nintendo, which is something they really need right now.

Final Thoughts:

All in all, I’d say this year’s E3 was a lot more encouraging than last year’s. I’m significantly less disillusioned about the state of the game industry than I was a year ago.

That being said, this year’s conference brought into sharp focus some trends in the gaming industry that simply need to die. I’m sick of console-makers, rather than producing their own content, claiming third-party titles on the grounds of temporary exclusivity or exclusive DLC or early betas just so they can pad out their presentations. Likewise, I’m also tired of CGI teaser trailers that tell us nothing about the game itself and show no actual gameplay; every conference except for Nintendo’s was rife with teaser trailers like this, and it was a massive waste of the audience’s time.

Additionally, and this is more directed at Sony, the increased emphasis on “free-to-play” titles at major E3 conferences over the last few years is disquieting. F2P is a dangerous business model; for every game that does it right, there are ten games that become “pay to win” or “free to play…for 5 minutes unless you pay us.” It’s also a model that console owners don’t historically respond well to, so if these platform holders aren’t careful, they could wind up alienating the very people who keep them in business.

Finally, and this is probably going to make me sound like an old man, I buy game consoles to play games. I don’t buy them to watch TV or movies, and I certainly don’t buy them so I can watch a particular show that’s exclusive to that platform. Maybe those kind of tactics play with a wider audience, but those aren’t the people who are going to tune in to watch an E3 conference. So Sony, Microsoft, please just give it a rest with the TV shows and spend that time talking about games, because your TV shows and movies aren’t going to convince anybody to spend $400+ on one of your consoles.

…Unless you’re planning to make 6 more seasons of Firefly. Then we can talk.