Thursday, June 28, 2018

Each Holding An ORB: Final Fantasy 5

INTRODUCTION: A drifter named Bartz (or "Butz", originally) is riding along on his chocobo pal Boco when he is caught in an unusual earthquake. Just then a meteor crashes and an amnesiac old man emerges, whilst a princess tries to track down her father, who has flown his dragon to the Wind Shrine to protect the Wind Crystal...

...Because (and get ready for this massive shock!): the four elemental crystals, you see, are dying (Jesus, this AGAIN?) - and with them the world.

Anyway: finding the king proves rather hard due to the becalmed sea, which leads the unlikely gang to find their fourth member: a drag king pirate whose ship is towed by a friendly sea serpent.  Of course, who else would it be?  And off they go to ADVENTURE!!!...  Which of course winds up with them fighting a talking tree, because JRPGs.

RELEASE: 6 December 1992, Nintendo Super Famicom (JPN); 30 September 1999, Sony PlayStation (USA, remake); 27 February 2002, Sony PlayStation (EU, remake)

MY FIRST PLAY: Again 2002, when the PlayStation remake hit these shores.  However it would take me until 2005 to complete it, again due to wandering attention.

Courtesy Square Enix, via Final Fantasy Wikia.
REAL WORLD: As you might have guessed from last week's entry, we have another numbering controversy here.  FF5 was intended for American release, with translation apparently starting quite soon after release, but several attempts were never finished, including a plan to release it under a different title due to the game's difficulty.  Due to this, the only way to play the game was on a Japanese Super Famicom cartridge.

This had a huge effect on import culture in gaming, with American fans importing these Japanese cartridges, modifying their machines to play them and learning Japanese or following guides to complete the game.  Unthinkable now that FF is a keenly awaited, shrewdly marketed, globe-straddling franchise - but a cool little glimpse at a charming corner of gaming past.

THE GAME: This is essentially FF3 with fixed characters.  Bartz, Galuf, Faris and Lenna (and later a fifth character) all have their own stories to be told, although Bartz's really isn't much to write home about for a de facto lead character, and Lenna's is boring.

As default, the characters have no skills except "Attack" and "Item", but can equip basically any armour or weapons they like.  They learn new skills by spending time and winning battles in a number of familiar job roles - yer usual knights, monks and thieves, new additions like rangers and dancers, plus a whole spectrum of mages and the non-threatening sounding mime, which is actually key to most end game strategies.

Once your characters have learned these skills, they can be used by the character when they're no longer in that job - but each character can only equip a maximum of four skills at once, and three of them are often automatically filled by the skills being learned in the current job.

This gives the player a really flexible system.  You could have a dancing white mage, or a summoner with cover, a ninja who can cast black magic, a knight who can, er, mime...  All of this leads to a feeling of near-infinite customisation, though you have to pity the poor guys who had to translate all of that from Japanese just to play it back in the day, desperately trying work out what was reducing and what the action was based on the animation.

Other than that there's not a great leap from FF4; there's a bunch more fancy Mode 7 rotation graphics, larger sprites (though that's helped by having four rather than five in the party) and a more pronounced ATB system aside, this is "as you were" - not necessarily a bad thing.

Courtesy Square Enix, via GameSpot.
IT'S A KIND OF MAGIC: Spells are purchased or found - the old "spellbook" approach again, one assumes - except for Blue Magic, which is learned from battles with certain enemies.  AP earned as a Black, White, Red, Blue or Time Mage increases the level of spells that can be cast.

Time Mage?  What gives?  Well, Time magic is mainly things like Haste, Slow, Stop, Old and other status magic.  I think Meteor is in there too though, so there's a big bang waiting for anyone who specialises in that relatively niche area.

MUSIC: Hmm, this soundtrack wasn't standing out in my head before a quick refresher dredged up this little gem...


There is interplanetary travel via artificial meteor, quite a bit of ancient technology and at least one robot superboss.  Plus Gilgamesh seems to travel between dimensions.  However, odd as it sounds, these don't have a great bearing on the locations, which are basically all hamlets and castles, so it's points off for that.

MEGABOSSES: Omega and Shinryu really set the bar for megabosses going forward.  One is a robotic spider, and has a presence in the game world, meaning combat is avoidable.  The other is a dragon found guarding a treasure chest, and is therefore also avoidable.  They are absolutely huge challenges, and the rewards are blatantly not worth it - so it's all for pride here.

Not content with these fiends, the GBA remake threw in Enuo, who is mentioned but not seen in the original game, along with a whole room full of Omegas, plus the new and improved Omega Mk. II for good measure!

REMAKES: The PlayStation version was more of a re-release, albeit with an English translation for the first time, and featuring a pirate accent for Faris!  As with FF4 the GameBoy Advance played host to an expanded version in 2006 (2007 for us Europeans), featuring four interesting if unnecessary new jobs, a new dungeon and new megabosses.

BEST BIT: Things go a bit mad with meteorites, voids, portals and interplanetary travel at several points, and the sheer density of the story is extremely satisfying.

WORST BIT: Mid and end game grinding, aside from feeling absolutely no affinity of affection for the characters (which is strictly a personal thing, and therefore not something I can comfortably cite as a problem).

I think the nicest thing I can say about this one is that you probably had to be there; playing this, FF4 and FF6 for the first times around the same time gives me an odd perspective on all this, as I had a more advanced and absorbing game in FF6 and one with characters and a story I simply preferred in FF4.  Nevertheless I do appreciate the effects this had on import gaming, and salute it as a landmark in that respect at the very least.

Join us next time for some six-y times, including a massive Weapon (ooo-er!) and magic and technology, together at last!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Each Holding An ORB: Final Fantasy 4 - The After Years

INTRODUCTION: Seventeen years later, King Cecil and Queen Rosa reign benevolently over Baron, and their son Ceodore struggles with his privilege, being as he is of both royal, mystic and alien blood.  Millennials, eh?  Anyway, off he goes to get his Proof of Knighthood and start his progression through the Baron Army.

Unfortunately whilst he gets the job done, the Red Wings, and Baron itself, are set upon by monsters, and a new moon appears in the sky - a portent of ill times to come.  Bahamut descends from the moon with a mysterious girl who resembles (but isn't) Rydia, and shit gets real in a hurry, with the Tower of Babil going berserk again and mysterious girls invading the Feymarch and stealing the eidolons.

Rydia herself is visiting the Feymarch when this happens, and when monsters attack her, she is rescued by Luca, the daughter of the king of the dwarves, whose fascination with dolls has made her an effective if creepy engineer, and with the mysterious girls trying to claim the dark crystal, the two set off to intervene, when a man in black introduces himself - but is he an old friend, or an old enemy?

RELEASE: 18 February 2008, mobile phones (JPN); 1 June 2009, Wii Ware (USA); 5 June 2009, Wii Ware (EU)

MY FIRST PLAY: I think around 2010, as I didn't monitor Wii Ware very closely and couldn't play it on my phone at the time.

Courtesy Square Enix, via Final Fantasy Wikia

REAL WORLD: Capitalising on the success of their first episodic mobile game, Final Fantasy 7 Before Crisis, Square decided to revisit the characters of fan favourite FF4 and tell the story of what happened after the world-changing (and world-saving) events of that game.

It was released as thirteen chapters on mobile phones and nine on Wii Ware, each containing one character's story (though often featuring cameos from some others), with the final three chapters dealing with the band getting back together and battling the new threat to their planet.

THE GAME: One of the problems with tackling this one out of release order is that I have to type the phrase "this game sees a return to the Active Time Battle (ATB) system" when we were actually only just talking about it last week.  Slight spoilers, but ATB was old news when this came out - as was 2D, the battle menu and even random encounters - so this is a nostalgia piece designed to grab older players, plus new players on mobile, due to the relative simplicity of the game engine.

There are some change though.  Moon Phases, of which there are four, affect battle damage for certain types of attack, and can be cycled through by staying at an inn or using tents, which is an interesting if completely unnecessary mechanic, which I frankly largely ignored by using tents until I got to the phase I wanted.

There's also a ton of new character.  It being seventeen years later, Cecil and Rosa's son Ceodore and Yang's daughter Ursula (who is absolutely excellent, and almost game-breakingly brilliant at higher levels) are of an age to be involved, as is Luca.  Palom and Porom are grown up, Edge is training four new (and pretty rubbish) ninjas and Edward has a secretary who gets involved in fights for some reason.

The bonds of family, friendship and camaraderie are reflected in the very good and fitting new feature of Band attacks, whereby having certain combinations of characters in your party gives you access to group attacks that are generally much stronger and more spectacular than most other attacks.

Courtesy Square Enix, via Final Fantasy Wikia
IT'S A KIND OF MAGIC: Exactly the same as FF4, which is horrendous if you're trying to bulk out a blog post...

MUSIC: I was tempted to put "Welcome To Our Town" again to show how far things had moved on in terms of technology, but here's a tune that will send a chill down your spine after a little while playing the game - the "Mysterious Girl Battle Theme".  You'll be hearing it a lot, and it's never a good sign:


Most of the endgame takes place on an artificial moon and the final battle is against god.  God is an alien, by the way.  So yeah, we're right up there with this one I'd say.

MEGABOSSES: Well this is awkward - the main superbosses in this are from FF5 and FF6...  Whaaaat?  Without wanting to go too far into the specifics, there is a plot development that ambitiously tries to link the worlds of FF1 through to FF6, which makes a fair bit of sense when it's explained.

This gives us a section of the game spent battling bosses from the NES and SNES years, some of which must be defeated - but others, like Omega and Shinryu (FF5) and Deathgaze (FF6) are optional challenges, as indeed they are in their original games.

REMAKES: A graphically superior version was released for the PSP in 2011.  Which was pretty quick, really.

WORST BIT: The episodic nature of the game can be a bit of a pill, especially if you were waiting for the next one to drop.  All you can do once an episode is complete is continue to play it for extra loot, which is a really good idea if you can stand it, because there is grinding a-plenty to be done if that's your aim.  And that equipment will be obsolete within a couple of hours of starting the last episode anyway, so...  Yeah.

BEST BIT: It's just really nice to revisit the cast of FF4 and see what everyone's up to.

I really enjoyed this, though it is a bit of a curate's egg - a 2D classic Final Fantasy game with the graphical and musical trappings of modern technology.  If all you're after, as indeed I am, is more Final Fantasy in its previous inimitable style, this is a perfect, albeit largely pointless, diversion.

Join us next time for an end to the employment crisis, an Omega lacking an alpha and, of course, to see more Butz.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Each Holding An ORB: Final Fantasy 4

INTRODUCTION: The city state of Baron is aggressively expanding its territory...  NO!  Come back!  This is different, I promise...  By stealing the world's crystals (stick with it!) using their superior military might, particularly the feared Red Wings airship squadron.

The captain of the Red Wings, dark knight Cecil, who is also the adopted son of the King of Banon, starts to question his father's orders after a brutal raid on the magicians' village of Mysidia, and is stripped of his rank and sent to investigate the summoners' village of Mist - accompanied by his best friend, the dragon knight Kain.

On arrival, he discovers they have been tricked into destroying the village, and is determined to protect the last remaining summoner, a child named Rydia.  What he discovers about his heritage will lead him on a personal quest for salvation, then forward to battle an other-worldly threat.

RELEASE: 19 July 1991, Nintendo Super Famicom (JPN); 23 November 1991, Super Nintendo Entertainment System (USA, as "Final Fantasy 2"); 27 February 2002, Sony PlayStation (EU, remake)

MY FIRST PLAY: 2002, when the PlayStation remake hit these shores.

Courtesy Square Enix, via Final Fantasy Wikia

REAL WORLD: The fourth Final Fantasy game was originally planned for the Fmaicom, with Square deciding to develop NES (FF4) and SNES (FF5) games simultaneously.  Whilst the NES version was cancelled, it was allegedly around 80% complete and some of the ideas therein were used for the now re-purposed FF5 on the SNES, which is this game...  And was therefore retitled as FF4.

Everyone straight?  You won't be in a second.

In North America, this was released as Final Fantasy 2, since 2 and 3 didn't make it outside of Japan.  The version originally released there is known as Easytype, as the developers felt the game was too unforgiving for Western audiences and reduced the difficulty of some battles and sections.  So obviously that makes Japan's eventual FF5 America's eventual FF3...  Right?...

Stay tuned!

THE GAME: In what can be seen as a combination of FF2 and FF3, there are specific characters, but each of them has a specific job, meaning what your party can do is defined by who is in the party at that particular time, which in turn necessitates the use of a number of different strategies throughout the game.

And what a cast of characters!  Even compared to FF 2's partically-revolving roster, there's a ton of different characters, most of them mapped closely to one of FF3's jobs - so you have a dark knight, dragon knight, summoner, white mage, sage, bard, monk, another white mage (you'll need it), black mage and ninja, plus an engineer (just a fighter who uses a wrench rather than a sword, really) and...  Well without giving too much away, a sort of baldy, beardy guy.

So that's twelve characters - and whilst you essentially follow the arc of Cecil, Kain and Rydia (plus Cecil's love interest Rosa), each of them gets enough fleshing out to make them seem like a living, breathing character, with their own vendettas, romances, tragedies and obsessions driving them on through the story.  Oh, and you can now have a maximum of five characters in the party as opposed to the series' standard four.

This is also the first outing for the Active Time Battle (ATB) system - apparently inspired by Formula One, someone call Engine Blood! - which transforms a strictly turn-based game into something more dynamic.  A bar next to your character's name gradually fills, and when it's full they can take an action.

It's a small change, but it does introduce a new level of strategy, as you can time events to chain with each other, rather than just entering your actions at the start of the turn amd watching them play out in an only semi-predictable order.  It was so well received that the series would not return to a purely turn-based system until Final Fantasy 10!

Courtesy Square Enix, via Wikipedia.
IT'S A KIND OF MAGIC: MP system, essentially the same as FF3.  However, mages now learn spells by levelling up - aside from a few of the Summon spells, which are either gained by defeating the summon monster in battle or finding rare items.

MUSIC: "Welcome To Our Town" is a lovely little tune played upon...  Well...  Being welcomed into a town, really.  Ahem:


End game.  'Nuff said.

MEGABOSSES: Bahamut would seem to somewhat fit this bill, as an unnecessary fight against a very difficult enemy that nets you a great reward - the ability to summon Bahamut, the God of The Summons himself.  There's a ton in the remakes though, including Proto-Babil on the 3DS, and Zeromus EG on GBA.

REMAKES: Much like its predecessor, an eventual 3D remake graced the Nintendo DS, but us European proles didn't have to wait until then to play it - the 2002 PlayStation port, which is a pretty straight port, warts and all, was our first opportunity, and came bundled with FF5 as well.

The definitive edition for me is the GameBoy Advance version released in 2005/06, which adds extra dungeons and the chance to use characters in the latter part of the game who had left your party permanently in previous versions.

WORST BIT: That bloody magnetic cave where everyone has to use non-metallic equipment or be paralysed.  I hated that bit.

BEST BIT: There's two parts in the game, which to save spoilers I'll just say are "when you meet the dwarves" and "when you find the final airship" where the scope of the game world widens unexpectedly.  And this happens TWICE, for heaven's sake.  Much like the previous entry, it's jaw-dropping that this could even fit on the cartridge.  Either that or "YOU SPOONY BARD!!!", anyway...

This is a superior entry in the canon, one that capitalises on the jump in technology to provide not just improvements in graphics, effects and sound, but an overhauled combat system, bigger gameworld and more absorbing story.  FF4 still commands a great deal of affection amongst fans - and for very good reason.

Join us next time for the next exciting instalment - quite literally, as we jump ahead to The After Years!

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Each Holding An ORB: Final Fantasy 3

INTRODUCTION: A group of four kids (Jesus, this again?) - or for the 3DS remake, one kid - has a nasty shock when they fall into a cave near their hometown, fight a giant turtle and find a massive, talking crystal that gives them the strength to go adventuring and asks them to restore balance to the world.

For the crystals, you see, are dying (Jesus, this again?) - and with them the world.  And these four children are destined to become the Warriors of Light (Jesus, this again?), and save the world from excessive darkness.

The story is actually a lot more complicated than that once it gets going - the synopsis really doesn't do it justice.  So, erm...  Let's get right to it!

RELEASE: 27 April 1990, Nintendo Famicom (JPN); 14 November 2006, Nintendo DS (USA, remake); 4 May 2007, Nintendo DS (EU, remake)

MY FIRST PLAY: 2004, NES emulator on my ancient PC (again).  A walkthrough was kept close to hand as due to character limits, the English translation turned into absolute gibberish halfway through!

Courtesy Square Enix, via Final Fantasy Wikia.

REAL WORLD: Expanding on what they'd delivered previously was a real challenge for Square.  The Super Famicom had been released, but they were still pushing the boundaries of what they could achieve on the Famicom; and so we get this.  A game that is said to fill every last bit of the cartridge.  It is the literal maximum the Famicom can cope with.

And a game, perhaps predictably, that at the time absolutely could not be translated into English - and certainly not literally, as the character count would have burst the cartridge.  An adapted translation was also canned early due to lack of manpower, and its comparatively late re-release makes this one of the least-played FF games in the west.

THE GAME: A partial return to FF1's simpler, EXP-based approach to levelling up, with the addition of Jobs.  This means that rather than fixing a character's role at the start of the game, a character can change specialisations repeatedly.

There are more different roles to choose as well; all six of the originals are back, with advanced versions thereof, and more specific variants like dragon and dark knights, vikings and scholars, and also summoners, making their debut - mage-type characters who summon huge godlike creatures into battle.

Given that the game's engine deals more with what jobs your characters are rather than who they are, it makes sense that the four player characters are anonymous in the original game, a la the first game.  They are described only as "Onion Kids", but the 3DS remake (somewhat pointlessly) gives them names and backstories: Luneth falls into the cave and fights the turtle, his best friend Arc joins to support him, Refia is the daughter of a local blacksmith and Ingus is a knight of Sasune, sworn to protect Princess Sara.

And another landmark debut, you say?  Kupo!  Yes, it's the Moogles, strange anthropomorphic cat things with tiny bat wings and pompoms on their heads.  Usually comic relief, no less than eleven of them were playable characters in FF6, and they have also technically appeared at Wrestlemania courtesy of The New Day.

Oh, and there's also Fat Chocobo!  Because body shaming gigantic birds is apparently a thing.  Fat Chocobo is a MacGuffin to get around the party's limited inventory space.  Extra items can be stored inside Fat Chocobo...  Yes, he eats the items and regurgitates them at a later date.  Don't blame me if your Elixir tastes of bird spit and stomach acid.

Courtesy Square Enix, via YouTube.
IT'S A KIND OF MAGIC: MP system, with around half the jobs in the game having some level of magical ability.  Spells are usually bought, though some are found - and Mini and Toad are storyline elements, as they allow entry to certain locations.

MUSIC: Uematsu's really getting to grips with the Famicom here, especially on "Elia, The Maiden Of Water" (although I don't think this is the Famicom version - sorry!):


Ooh, difficult.  There's no out-and-out space tech like Final Fantasy, but there is an ancient, technologically-advanced civilisation vaguely involved, and not for the first or last time.  That puts it a whisker in front of FF2 in this respect.

MEGABOSSES: There are none, to my knowledge, in the original.  You could argue that technically any of the bosses guarding the equipment in the Forbidden Land of Eureka are megabosses as they are optional, but they're only on par with, or slightly less tough than, the bosses on the run-up to the final boss, so I don't count them.  The 3DS remake whacked an Iron Giant in to fill this particular gap, so all is right with the world.

REMAKES: Well it probably won't surprise you to know that there is a 3DS remake, since I've mentioned it about twelve times already.  Released in 2006, it had a massive graphical revamp, with 3D, perhaps predictably, being the main upgrade.  This was most Western players' first exposure to the game... Legally, at least.

WORST BIT: Fighting Garuda in Saronia, and having to change your whole party to dragoons to have any effect.  That, or the caves full of enemies that divide if attacked with any weapon but a Dark Knight's blade.  Or when everyone's shrunk down and you're reliant on magicians.  Or the undersea bits when (particularly in the 3D remake) one needs at least two vikings in the party to make progress...

The list, unfortunately, goes on, and for a game offering so much choice in how it's played and what classes are used, any of these kinds of bottleneck really jar.  I can see how it's trying to push players out of their comfort ones, but it does somewhat blunt the freedom with which it seems intended to be played.

BEST BIT: The sheer epic scale, which is almost unthinkable for the NES.  Between choice of jobs, number of locations (and trust me, when you think you've seen it all, you haven't - there's a point where your horizon expands near-infinitely), and the number of sub-stores that the player will find themselves involved in, you will be fully entertained all the way through - aside from the type of moments described above, of course.

This is a fantastic technical achievement and a damn good game - though, and this might just be me being difficult, I did feel like the 3DS remake lacked the charm of the Famicom version, which stands as Square's magnum opus on the much-loved system.

Join us next time for spoony bards, pink puffs and a cathartic story of redemption...  What do you mean, put the serious ones first and follow them up with the jokes?  It's my fucking blog.  Just fuck off.  Go on: FUCK OFF!!!  (And please tune in next week, friend.)