Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Startropics 1's Password

Startropics was a delightful little game released way, way back in the days of the NES. It has a special place in my heart as one of the first games I ever beat, and, provided that you count it as an RPG (which I do), probably the first RPG I ever played from start to finish.* And I think it holds up pretty well against time, too--it's got a decent enough plot, there's a certain lighthearted personality to it that you still, to this day, don't find very often in an RPG, and, providing you're one of those people who count gameplay as an important part of an RPG, it's still fun to play--in a refreshing way, even, since few games in the past 2 decades have tried to copy its exact feel.

There are, for me, 2 really notable aspects of this game that I feel are worth recognizing here. The first I've already covered--the game's ending, which is strangely powerful for the little game, yet not so epic that it's over the top in such a title. The second, however, is a clever little gimmick.

I've mentioned in a previous rant that I really do like the idea of interesting swag that comes packaged with a game--stuff like a game's soundtrack, or that marvelous little Vault Boy bobblehead figure that came with Fallout 3. It's not always good, of course--FF12's metal case was pointless, and its little bonus disc on the history of the FF series was little more than a stupid advertisement--but it's generally an effort I appreciate. And I appreciated it even all the way back to when I was 7 or 8, when I opened up the Startropics 1 box and found that with my game came a neat little mock letter from Dr. J, a character from the game, to his nephew, the main character, which basically just set the premise for the game. "Neat!" I thought, and set it aside.

Well, as it turns out, that letter was actually a part of the game itself. See, it's like this. There's a part in the game where you need to put in a password to your little navigating robot to continue on with the quest. The game gives you no information on what it is, with its only hint being to put the letter Dr. J sent Mike (the hero) into water. The game, of course, has no letter item in its inventory, and I found myself wondering exactly how I was supposed to accomplish this in-game if Mike didn't still have the letter on him. I spent some time looking for the item, in case I had missed it, but couldn't find anything.

And then I remembered the letter that came with the game itself.*** Wondering if an idea this crazy could actually be the solution, I found it amongst the junk in my room, ran out to the kitchen, and held it under the faucet for a moment. A moment later, lo and behold, across its bottom appeared a secret message with the code.

If only I knew any proper swear words at that point. I could have properly conveyed my feelings: Holy shit that is so cool.

It's just an example of really neat, creative thinking going into the design of a game puzzle. Where so many RPGs are content with just pushing crates into the right place, or having the sheer genius to be able to press the "Search" button in front of something really suspicious in order to find a password or essential item, Startropics 1 included in its neat puzzles one that required sleuth work in the real world, making a plot-essential item an actual, real object. What a neat, creative thing to put in the game it was. Kudos to Nintendo for such a nifty idea!

* "Probably" because I'm not ENTIRELY sure about this--it MIGHT have been The Magic of Scheherazade. My memory's a little foggy on this; it WAS something like 20 years ago.**

** Jesus CHRIST how the hell did I get so old?

*** Yeah, yeah, I know it seems obvious enough to figure out from the start, but give me a break. I was in the second grade. At that point, my deductive reasoning with video games peaked at "Hey, that enemy has spikes on his head. Maybe I shouldn't jump on him."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Terranigma's Theme of Advancement

Proof that Enix WAS, in fact, capable of creating a good RPG prior to the merger with Squaresoft, despite all the contrary evidence provided by Dragon Quest and Star Ocean,* Terranigma has become quite a favorite among fans of old, obscure RPGs in the past decade, thanks to emulation making it possible for Americans to play it--the game was only ever released in Japan and Europe. The old SNES Action RPG was very creative, had a generally entertaining protagonist, and a plot and setting that took a look at several interesting themes, most of which seemed to revolve around the idea of essential contradictions.

My favorite theme of Terranigma, I think, would have to be its portrayal of technological and social advancement. The goal set for Ark (Terranigma's protagonist) is to resurrect the dead Earth's lands and life forms, and then to nurture human advancement to quickly bring the world to a modern state. Ark is thus present to witness several events and inventions that forever changed the flow of human history, technology, and culture, and helps in several cases to bring them about. Ark's actions (if you choose to do everything in the game, that is) advance culture in the fields of naval navigation, preparing and keeping food, art, economics, foreign trade and travel, alcohol, and (most of all) scientific progress, among others. He nurtures such monumental technologies as telephones, airplanes, and usable electrical power. And as he does all this, the towns of the world change, going from your standard RPG villages to modern cities.

It's a pretty neat process, honestly, even if the game's translation is, as was often the case back in the SNES days, not always great at conveying the game's elegance properly. What I really love about it, though, is that the game tries to show both sides of cultural advancement, both the good and the bad, in several different ways.

The first aspect of advancement it looks at is the basics of success. The painter Matis provides a good example of this. Matis is a poor, largely ignored painter who wants to show his works to others, hoping to find people out there who enjoy the work he pours his soul into. He thus gives Ark an example of his work, and asks Ark to show it to others to get their opinions and interest. After Ark shows it to a famous and rich critic who likes it, Matis becomes famous, and orders for his paintings begin pouring in. Eventually Matis's fame, however, leads to him being overworked, and by the end of the game, he says, "Before fame, I thought it was great just to paint. Now look! I work like a machine for money chased by time. This is no good! Even if it sells, it's no good if it's not what you want to paint." Through Matis, as well as some others that Ark meets, the game shows the desire for success and its rewards of a bigger business and home, wealth, and popularity, but it also shows the downside of the success that comes with advancement, the way that success can take over one's life and draw the pleasure from what one does.

The next aspect are the effects of cultural advancement in general, which are shown through the games' several towns and how they grow. As Ark promotes the world's sciences, economy, culture, and globalization, the small villages he visits become large towns and finally modern cities. The benefits are easy enough to see--modern comforts become available to all, there are more pastimes for the people of the cities, and international trade and tourism brings new goods, money, and visitors to each city. But at the same time, the game shows the bad with the good. Many residents complain about how crowded, busy, and complicated life is now, while the animals that Ark saved earlier in the game and that helped him along his quest suffer for mankind's success, being taken from their homes to be put in a zoo, or sold on the black market.

The last aspect, and that of particular note, is the consequence of advancing technology. I feel that the game does especially well with this. It treats great moments of scientific history with reverence quite often--the successful use of Columbus's navigation methods to reach a new continent is played out as quite a big moment in history, and the discovery of how to harness electricity to create light is treated with such reverence in the game that the moment almost seems divine. The usefulness of scientific advancement, as well as the yearning to create a better life through invention, is treated as a marvelous thing in Terranigma.

Yet, at the same time, the game also shows how much is lost with the spread of high technology. Bell remarks that his phones are a huge success, and wonders casually if perhaps people can no longer live without having the instant ability to hear others' voices. A random NPC scoffs at many of the legendary and mystic ideas of old as silly and impossible in such an advanced world (even though Ark has encountered many of these things), showing the loss of belief in legend and the intangible brought on by the modern world. Columbus laments that his navigation methods, so monumental and important before, now seem old fashioned, even quaint, in this world of airplanes and television, showing that scientific advancement can even cause a lack of appreciation for itself. The use of technology for the creation of attack robots and a super virus in the game shows the dangers that technology can have, of course. Most telling of all to me are the words of Eddie,** the one who harnessed electricity into a light bulb: "I worry about how much light from electricity has changed our lives. It may have stolen the warmth like a candle's flame from human souls."

Technology and advancement in general can do great things for us, but we can also lose much because of it, and Terranigma tries hard to show both sides of the coin. Having seen this double-sided nature to the world's progress throughout the game makes the game's ending, in which Ark looks down on the world he's created and nurtured and sees it for all its greatness, all the more poignant, for we know that the greatness comes at a cost, and we know that Ark is aware of this. Terranigma does a fine job with its theme of the joys and despair of human advancement.

* Keep in mind I said PRIOR to the merger. Star Ocean 3 and Dragon Quest 8, which are actually good games, wouldn't count.

** Don't ask me why the game can't be bothered to just call him Edison when it's got people like Bell and Columbus in there by name. Then again, they misspelled Matisse as Matis for some reason, too. Who knows why, I guess.

Friday, August 6, 2010

General RPGs' Curative Falls

Thanks to my sister GHTLovesTHG for this rant idea.

Here's a question. Why is it that, in an RPG (and almost every other entertainment medium, but as usual, I just focus on the RPG side of things), falling to your death almost never results in dying?

Think about it. How many times in an RPG have you ever seen a character die from a seemingly lethal plunge down the side of a cliff, or off an airship, or whatever? Admittedly, minor characters can be killed by falls--Dyne from Final Fantasy 7 and Barinten from FF Tactics, for example--but no one with any particularly strong relevance to the plot ever is. If you ever see someone important leap off a height of hundreds of feet and you don't actively watch them perish, and they weren't already dead or dying when they did it, they didn't die.

Examples? Why, I thought you'd never ask.

A. Final Fantasy 6: After the airship is destroyed in midair, everyone falls off it from what we can safely assume is a huge height. Aside from Celes hitting her head and being in a coma for a year, everyone winds up being just fine after falling from an air transport in the sky--right in the middle of Armageddon, I might add.

B. Final Fantasy 7: (SPOILERS--BUT REALLY, DO ANY OF YOU NOT KNOW WHAT HAPPENS IN THIS GAME BY NOW?) During Cloud's flashback, the bridge over a huge and deep chasm between mountain peaks comes apart while Sephiroth, Zack, Tifa, Cloud, and Miscellaneous Shinra Grunt are traveling across it. Big surprise, the grunt is the only one who dies, and everyone else, after falling far down into the abyss that you can't even see through the mist and distance, is perfectly okay.

C. Xenosaga 2: Early in the game, Jin and Margulis have a fight that results in Margulis falling through the roof of a building, down into darkness. Now, the actual height of his fall isn't specified, but since he doesn't just hop back up or shout that he'll be back in no time, and since Jin seems convinced that he's not going to return for a good measure of time, it's only reasonable to presume that he fell quite a ways. And, of course, he survived just fine and dandy.

D. Tales of the Abyss: After a fight between the heroes and several of the God Generals on a snowy mountain, the fight's noise and seismic collateral damage causes an avalanche that engulfs the combatants and sweeps them off the cliff's face. Naturally, being hit by an avalanche and thrown off the edge of a mountainous cliff kills all of...most of...some of...actually, every person involved survives with no significant injuries.

See what I mean, here? It's like RPG characters are impervious to the consequences of gravity. I mean, don't get me wrong, there are times when this is decently sensible and okay, like in Tales of Legendia, when Senel falls off a cliff but survives because we see him caught by mystical glowing energy stuff, or when Yuna in Final Fantasy 10 takes a plunge off that Bevelle wedding tower thing and summons her flying Aeon to catch her, or even in Arc the Lad 2 when Gruga falls off a platform down to the lava, but turns out to have caught himself on the edge or something and climbs back up. If the game SHOWS me or at the very least TELLS me how they survive, and it's actually FEASIBLE, then I have no problem with it. But that's only rarely the case.

Worse still, however, is not the fall that doesn't kill you--it's the Curative Fall. A Curative Fall is an occurrence in an RPG where not only doesn't a fall manage to kill someone, but that someone who survives it should have died anyway from other causes. Basically, the person who falls is in really bad shape, but, somehow, they wind up being just fine after the fall brings them off-screen for a while, even though they should have died not only from the drop, but from their current injuries. Plot-wise, the fall seems to have CURED them from their otherwise fatal wounds, rather than increase the damage.

Instances of this phenomenon:

A. Final Fantasy 7: After being sliced deeply across the chest by one of those standard Ridiculously Huge RPG swords, Sephiroth is lifted up, slammed into the wall, and falls into the heart of a reactor that runs on radioactive magic. Does the drop's impact aggravate his grievous wound at all? Doesn't seem so, cuz he's just fine later on.

B. Tales of the Abyss: So Van has been beaten to shit by his adversaries, and is surely going to die from his injuries. But look, he's falling off the platform, into the planet's core! I guess he's dead, right? Well, only if by "dead" you mean "he'll be just fine and will come back stronger than ever."

C. Final Fantasy 8: At the conclusion of a rough battle while on a mission, Laguna, Kiros, and Ward are in a bad way in enemy territory--Laguna's beat up and exhausted, Kiros is so badly injured he can't get up, and Ward is like Kiros only with his neck slashed open. What does Doctor Laguna prescribe for his dying friends? Why, heaving their broken bodies over the side of a cliff to the rough sea several stories below, of course! Naturally, hitting the water whilst a bloody, dying mess and being forced to swim for who knows how far is just the miracle cure Laguna was hoping for, as all 3 fellows survive the event. Rather than death, the only permanent consequence of their wounds and the aggravation to said wounds of a fall and power swim is that Ward can't talk. Everything else is A-OK!

D. Final Fantasy 4 (there IS a lot of falling in this series, isn't there?): Okay, yeah, see, Cid is flying this airship, and for reasons that only kind of make sense, he jumps off of it with a bomb in his hand or strapped to his chest or caught in his beard or something. The point is, a bomb goes off that is right next to him, the explosion of which is large and destructive enough to blast the hell out of the nearby rocky underground cliff face, while he is falling through the air from a height that can only be multiple miles high, down to a very hard and rocky underworld surface that may or may not have lava on it. This causes me to theorize that there is actually a second rule to go with the one stating that no one dies from falling: the more inescapably fatal a fall should be, the greater its curative effect. This at-least-60-years-old mechanic has a bomb go off in his face, yet somehow the healing power of him accelerating to an incredible velocity then slamming into a hard and unmoving surface manages to piece his smithereens back together so effectively that the next time you see him, he's just sleeping it off in a bed.