Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Mario Series Theory: Peach's Power and Helplessness

A few months ago, I played Mario and Luigi 4, the one where they’re messing around with dreams. It was boring, like every other MaL before it, and very little about it caught my attention. There was, however, one moment during the final confrontation with Bowser that I was interested in. Things were looking bad for the Mario brothers, as Bowser had supercharged himself with power from the Dream Stone, AKA, ultra-powerful-relic-doohickey-of-the-day. There didn’t seem to be much hope for Mario and Luigi as they stood completely outgunned and terrified before the might of their magically enhanced foe...

And then, from behind Bowser, Princess Peach (who’s chilling in a locked cell, as usual) rallies Starlow, and together they blast Bowser with a beam of magic so staggeringly powerful that it actually blows the Dream Stone he’s drawing ungodly power from into a haze of magical shards. I mean, the thing’s not broken, it’s disintegrated.

Now, let’s get one thing straight right here: magical ultra-empowering plot devices may be a dime a dozen for RPGs, and not exactly uncommon in regular Mario games either, but common or not, this thing was legit. Because after Peach makes her attack, Bowser manages to inhale several of the shards left over, and these shards, these motes of power, are still enough to increase his power to end boss proportions. The fact that Peach and Starlow (and I think it’s safe to say it’s mostly Peach; Starlow hasn’t shown, to my recollection, any really great magical prowess before now) can send Bowser reeling when he’s got the whole thing in his grasp, and then destroy the Dream Stone to boot, suggests magical power on a tremendous scale. Even if we suppose it’s 50-50 between her and Starlow, it’s still incredible.

This got me thinking about where Peach stands in terms of power in her world. She has access to this love-powered magic that can knock an above-end-boss-powered foe on his ass. She’s shown multiple times to be able to use the same kinds of power ups that Mario can, and she can generally keep up with him in terms of overall physical prowess. Then there’s that game where the Vibe Scepter grants her the ability to channel her non-love emotions into magical power. Oh, yeah, big deal, you say. Emotion-fueled power, who cares. Well you know who else does that? Fucking super saiyans, that’s who.

So when you think about it...Peach is only a step or two behind the hero of the entire series, Mario, in terms of physical prowess, she can use the same equipment that he does, and in addition, she has a range of magical powers that range from the mildly convenient (floaty-ness) to the insanely powerful (the love magic beam thing). I think...guys, I think Peach might actually be the single most powerful being in the Mario franchise.

At the very least, she’s pretty damn high up on the scale. And hey, that’s a kind of interesting thing, yeah? Worth a little rant, I figured. So I started typing this up. And then halfway through, the obvious question hit me:

If she’s so goddamn powerful, why, then, does she let herself get kidnapped all the damn time!?

Yeah, okay, people have been criticizing Peach (and other frequent damsels in distress) about the kidnapping thing for ages. It’s not a new thing. I’ve kinda always just given it a disgruntled pass before now. I mean, I’m as sick of it as the next bloke. Even if you want to ignore that underlying sexism of the issue, it’s been the most overused, tired, bland cliche imaginable for some time now. But so long as it seemed reasonable to say that Peach was not, on her own, capable of matching Bowser in combat, I was willing to let it pass, albeit, again, reluctantly.*

But now that it seems clear that Princess Peach is close to Mario in athletic prowess and command of power ups, and that she far outclasses pretty much everyone else on her planet in terms of magical power, the question is a lot harder to ignore. If she has offensive options on par, or even superior, to a ultra-magic plot mcguffin, why does she let herself get kidnapped by Bowser so frequently? It doesn’t make any sense!


Does it actually make more sense than ever?

Alright, hear me out. So let’s follow the evidence and implications on this, and assume that Peach has massive magical power. Let’s even go as far as to assume that she could, any day of the week, overcome Bowser herself in an outright no-holds-barred fight. Here’s a question: what is the collateral damage of a fight like that?

I mean, consider Bowser. He is a big lug. He breathes fire. He leaps around. He smashes through floors and walls. Sometimes he’s using some heavy artillery while riding a ridiculous flying clown thing. And he’s never above having a ton of his minions help him in combat. Any extended fight with Bowser inevitably requires significant space and causes a lot of damage to the surroundings. And even with our operating assumption that Peach has tremendous power and can subdue Bowser without question, there is NEVER going to be an all-out fight between them that ends quickly. By far more than his offense, Bowser’s durability is insane. I mean, if you look for a moment at the damage he takes in his battles with Mario, you start to realize that this dude is the next best thing to immortal! Bombs in his face, hammers and fireballs and all manner of solid objects pelting him, and outright falling into molten lava, multiple times, and Bowser somehow stays alive. The guy had the entire fucking galaxy collapse in on him, and survived it! Oh, sure, it all hurts him, and he can be taken down by it, but things that should be insanely lethal and would destroy many villains we might assume more powerful than him just cannot kill Bowser.

Pretend you’re in Peach’s position. You’re the ruler of your kingdom, and you genuinely care about it and its citizens. Bowser launches an attack on your castle, his minions smacking your subjects around and his flying artillery bombarding your home. What, exactly, is your best option in this scenario? A fight with Bowser, in most cases, is going to take place on your home turf, with innocent civilians in the area. If you have to fight all out, you’re probably going to be causing damage to your surroundings. Even if you don’t, Bowser absolutely will if he’s going all out. And there’s little chance it’ll be a short fight. In this scenario, what’s the better option: to unleash your real power on Bowser and initiate a fight that will damage your own home and hurt those you’re responsible for...or to go along with the blustering turtle-dragon, knowing that you have a couple of warriors on your side who will come to save you once you’re in enemy territory, ensuring that the only collateral damage of a confrontation with Bowser will be against Bowser’s own turf?

Besides a concern for her kingdom and citizenry’s welfare--which should, as a ruler, be her primary concern, I’ll note--there’s also a longer-term situation to consider. Even if Peach did cut loose and drive Bowser away in defeat herself, then what? You think Bowser would give up? He hasn’t been Mario’s arch nemesis for the last 30 years out of a lack of persistence. He’d be back...but this time, he would, perhaps, up his game, launching a much larger attack against Peach’s kingdom since the first one didn’t work. A defeat for Bowser in this situation could just provoke a stronger attack next time, getting more innocent bystanders caught in the middle of it.

On the other hand, if Peach allows herself to get kidnapped, what happens? Bowser takes her away to his own territory, and then a lot of his time is occupied with hampering the Mario brothers as they come to fetch the princess. For the period of her captivity, Bowser’s attention is on her, and her coming rescuers, not on her kingdom and its people. The mushroom people are perhaps safest while Peach is held captive. And when Mario and Luigi come and beat Bowser, and rescue her? Well, Bowser will be back again later, but if his defeat teaches him to up his game, he’ll be escalating in laying down more serious obstacles for Mario and Luigi, not launching a bigger attack during the Kidnap Peach part of his scheme--because that part went off without a hitch before.

And if the shit hits the fan hard enough while she’s held prisoner...well, the scenario which inspired this rant proves that the bars of a cage won’t be able to stop Peach when she needs to act. She can afford to bide her time until her hand is forced. Which, given the Mario brothers' resourcefulness, skill, and good luck, is quite a rare occurrence.

Peach is, of course, not always taken by Bowser. Plenty of other enemies also kidnap the chick. But there’s still some logic in her refusing to unleash her power on them: A, the collateral damage thing is still a consideration, and B, new enemies are unknowns, and it’s smarter to test the waters with them and find out what their capabilities and limits are before outright engaging with them in combat.

Anyway, there you go. Am I overthinking this? Absolutely. Do I even for a second believe that anyone at Nintendo has intentionally set up this situation, which now makes responsible sense of Peach’s kidnapping problem? Nope. But does it nonetheless provide a rational explanation that I can stand behind for why Princess Peach allows herself to be taken by her foes so frequently even when she’s one of the most powerful individuals in her world? Yup. And that’s all I require.

* Incidentally, I do know that a criticism leveled against Peach (when working with the apparently false assumption that she can’t fight back) is that she has plenty of opportunity to learn self defense between kidnappings and should do so, but I still gave her a pass in the face of this argument. Bowser being what he is, I think it’s fair to say that (again, under the apparently incorrect belief that she doesn’t hold any extraordinary power naturally) any normal amount of self defense training isn’t going to cut it when he shows up to rumble.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Dragon Quest Series's Heal All Option

All credit to my friend Queelez for this rant. And, honestly, quite a few of the rants that I’ve done in the past. The guy’s a great source of topic ideas. Cheers, mate!

...Now finish that guest rant you promised me! You can’t reveal to me a whole new fascinating perspective on an RPG I played decades ago and then NOT follow through with a rant about it!


You may have noticed that I don’t have a lot of good things to say about the Dragon Quest series as a whole.* DQ games tend to be generic to an extreme, feature a cast utterly devoid of defining characteristics, and be engaged in a fierce competition with Suikoden 4, Rune Factory 1, and Ricky Gervais over who’s the most potent sedative. You know how I can be sure that the conspiracy theorists are wrong, and the government’s reason for putting fluoride in our water isn’t to make its citizens docile and complacent? Because if Uncle Sam really were trying to do that, he’d get serious, ditch the fluoride, and slip some Dragon Quest 6 into our pipelines.

Some of the cause for this problem in the DQ series comes from its overall goal and premise, that being that Dragon Quest seeks to be a ‘traditional’ RPG, maintaining a ‘classic’ feel like it had in its beginnings back on the NES. This shouldn’t actually be a problem, of course, except that someone at Enix and now SquareEnix apparently thinks that part of that tradition should be a bland plot with characters who have more in common intellectually and emotionally with a tree stump than they do human beings.**

With all of that said...there is 1 aspect of Dragon Quest that’s pretty forward-thinking. In fact, in this regard, the series has been ahead of its genre for over 20 years: the Heal All menu option.

Allow me to explain, for those amongst you possessing enough luck or sense not to have played a Dragon Quest before. So, you’re in a random battle, right? During the course of the battle, your foes manage to get in some good licks on a few of your characters, so when you finally emerge from the fight victorious, your party needs some healing before continuing. Standard stuff, right? Of course. So you open your menu, select your party’s healer, and either have to heal every party member 1 by 1, or spend probably more MP than was necessary for the convenience of a party-wide healing spell, assuming you have that option to begin with. Mildly annoying to have to do frequently, but it comes with the RPG territory, right? We put up with it as players because we have to.

Except that we don’t have to. Not in Dragon Quest, at least.

Since early in the series--I couldn’t say when, exactly, having never played anything before DQ4, but Queelez reports that the option is present at least as early as DQ3--there has been an option in the menu of Dragon Quest games called Heal All, which just does all that crap for you. You select Heal All, and the game automatically has whatever members of your party are capable of casting healing spells bring everyone in the party back to full health (or as close to it as possible, if your MP is running out). As far as my experience goes, most of the DQ games I’ve played are even fairly economical about the process, too, not usually wasting MP on larger spells if smaller ones will do the trick, at least as far as I’ve noticed. Then again, when I’m doing the healing myself, I’m usually lazy enough to just select the biggest all-healing spell I can get and be done with it, so what seems efficient to me might not seem that way to you. Nonetheless, it’s not as wasteful and lazy as I am, so, y’know, that’s a plus for me, at least.

Needless to say, this is a fantastically convenient and useful little gameplay feature, and regardless of my feelings for the series as a whole, I give it and its developers full credit for coming up with it. Heal All may not seem like that big a deal in the long run, saving only seconds at a time, but think about just how many damn times you wind up going through the process of after-battle healing in an RPG. Especially a Dragon Quest game, whose traditional difficulty level means a higher than average frequency of post-battle boo-boo bandaging. At Hour 39 of the game, after your 1245th random encounter, those seconds saved from each healing session thanks to Heal All are probably going to have accumulated close to half an hour altogether! And let’s face it, folks--can anyone really argue that being able to press a single button rather than navigating 5 extra menu options every damn time you want to take care of the most basic gameplay process of an RPG is a bad thing? I love Heal All for the convenience alone, let alone the time and admittedly tiny effort it saves.

The question I have is, why the hell hasn’t the rest of the RPG world caught up with this damn concept? This isn’t a new feature for Dragon Quest! Like I said, this hearkens back to some of the series’s earliest titles! What, the mighty NES could handle the lines of code for the feature, but a fucking Playstation 4 can’t? Were the early guys at Enix some sort of coding savants, incapable of writing a genuinely interesting plot twist or convincing line of dialogue but able to create some master healing logarithm that the entire rest of the gaming industry can’t hope to recreate? Did Enix take a patent out on this single menu option? I want to know, RPG industry, what’s the hold-up on this convenient, useful, seemingly-obvious-on-a-common-sense-level feature being a standard for menu-based games?

Sorry, but the situation just kind of annoys me. It would be nice if I didn’t have to reluctantly admit that a series I don’t like made by a company that I can’t stand is STILL, after over 2 decades, ahead of practically every competitor in terms of such a patently obvious gameplay feature. A series that takes pride in having its head shoved up the ass of its own history, for that matter. This is like if your mentally unstable grandpappy, who still thinks he’s flying a B-52 under the command of General Lee against the Visigoths, had invented a can opener back when he was 12 and is STILL the only person on the face of the planet who recognizes its utility. I mean, I’ve played close to 300 RPGs now. While obviously I can’t claim to value my time all that highly, especially since some of those 300 were Quest 64 and the Golden Sun series, I still feel a certain righteous annoyance when I think about how many hours of my life could have been saved, ultimately, if I’d had a Heal All option in the majority of those games. When is the damn industry as a whole going to catch up on this issue?

So, in the end, I say kudos to you, Dragon Quest. I gotta hand it to you--you’ve had a legitimately good gameplay idea, and it has been yours and yours alone. I may criticize you for being hella dumb, but in this regard, every other game, series, and company in the industry, at least that I can recall, is apparently much, much dumber.

* Except DQ8. I still have no idea how such a solid RPG came about from this dull as dirt series.

** The rest of the problem, of course, is probably just overall incompetence being the official business plan for Enix and SquareEnix’s writing staff.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

General RPG Lists: Worst Beginnings

Credit to my buddy Queelez for this rant idea. He’s a darned good bloke who’s always got a great rant idea for me.

One of the most universal truths about crafting a story is that the opening to your work should grab an audience’s attention. You want to draw your audience as far in as you can in your initial connection with them, whether it be through excitement, intrigue, beauty and wonder, humor, or whatever other appeal you can come up with. It’s true for writers, it’s true for filmmakers, it’s true for sequential artists, and it’s true for game developers. It’s a tried and true technique older than our oldest stories, and one that spans every form of expression, from the snobbiest cinema right down to something so casual as a story told between friends. First impressions are powerful, and the effective creator makes sure that first impression is a good one.

The developers of the games below did not know this.

5. Behemoth Battle (Final Fantasy Mystic Quest)

Who the hell does this? Who the hell makes the very first fight of a game one which you have no guarantee of winning?

Mind you: I’m not against the idea of opening your RPG up with a battle. I’m not even completely against the idea of opening your game up with a fight which the player can actually lose, if the player decides to monumentally screw up.

But there is only a single thing you can do in the Behemoth Battle at the beginning of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest: Attack. There is a single strategy for victory, and that is it: hit the Attack option several times, and whittle down the Behemoth’s HP before he whittles down yours. And most of the time, that works just fine! I’m sure most people reading this who have played the game have no idea what my problem is.

But the thing is, you can miss the attacks you make. And the Behemoth can also get in critical hits. So, get unlucky just twice in this opening battle of the game, and you will die because of the cruel twist of RNG fate. And there’s not a goddamn thing you can do about it! You have NO other options to take in this battle to counteract a bad role of the electric dice. What kind of a way is that to begin a game? Punish a new player for his/her mistakes if you have to, but have the sense to make sure that in the first damn fight of your game, there’s no chance the player will lose even while he/she does the RIGHT thing.

4. Ordon Village (The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess)


3. Temple of Trials (Fallout 2)

You know, I think the question of whether tutorial dungeons need to exist is debatable, but regardless of your stance on that issue, there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to go about making one. The right way is to do it like, say, the tutorial dungeon that Lufia 2 (the real one, not that Curse of the Sinistrals crud) opens with. It’s very straightforward, it only introduces a small set of the gaming conventions that you need to know at that time, it communicates effectively, and it’s short.

Now, you want the wrong way to make a tutorial dungeon? Look at Fallout 2. It’s long--as in, the size of a full, actual dungeon. It’s boring. It tries to get you familiar with too many of the game’s conventions all at once. It really doesn’t communicate the mechanics it’s teaching you effectively. And it feels extremely forced, an extra jammed into the game for the sake of gameplay rather than plot. Take it out (as some mods do) and you lose absolutely nothing from the game. It’s just a terrible way to start the game; it’s a chore, nothing more, and not even an effective one.

You know what’s the real kicker about the Temple of Trials, though? The real kicker is that Fallout 1 had already proven that it was completely unnecessary. Fallout 1 has no such tutorial area at its beginning; it just drops you into the game and lets you figure out how to engage with its world on your own. And it worked absolutely fine for every player I’ve ever known who started the series there! Fallout 2’s Temple of Trials is an inept attempt to teach you stuff that it’s already proven doesn’t need to be directly taught anyway! Idiotic.

2. Twilight Town (Kingdom Hearts 2)

I’m sorry, SquareEnix, I think I might’ve misheard you. The ears, they play tricks on a guy after he reaches a certain age. You say I’m going to have to spend how many hours playing as a minor, nearly superfluous character doing minigames before the fucking game actually starts?*

1. Peragus Mining Facility (Knights of the Old Republic 2)

Oh my stars. If you thought the Temple of Trials in Fallout 2 was a dull tutorial dungeon, then you...well, you were totally right, obviously. But Peragus is even worse.

I mean, I’ll give it the fact that pieces of plot actually do happen in this first dungeon of the game. You meet major characters, you discover bits of the lore, you encounter a couple separate antagonists, and the events of this dungeon actually DO have plot relevance. At first glance, you’d almost think this were a solid opening.

But it goes on FOREVER. There should never be a time when your tutorial dungeon spans HOURS. And while stuff does happen in the facility, it’s only occasionally punctuating long, dull stretches of simplistic gameplay teaching you skills that are definitely simple enough that they could just be picked up as they become relevant while going through the rest of the game.

And once again, you’ve got a case where the game’s a direct sequel of a title that proved this bullshit wasn’t necessary! KotOR1 had its opening tutorial stuff, but it was quick and didn’t jam the entirety of the game’s mechanics down your throat all at once, just what was needed to get along. The sequel’s mechanics are pretty close to the first KotOR, so what’s the deal with this 3-hour long hand holding session?

Dishonorable Mention: Half of the Damn Game (Star Ocean 3)

Okay, so, Star Ocean 3 does have an actual, legitimate opening, and it’s mostly fine. Main character Fayt gets involved in lost-in-space shenanigans, finds himself on a backwater little world whose culture is in a feudal era of sorts, and helps a little village out before leaving. Okay, fine.

Except that the place where Fayt ends up next, and stays for the next 20 - 30 hours of your time, is just another backwater fantasy planet! One which has the very barest possible relevance to the actual damn plot of the game! Fayt gets mixed up with fantasy world politics for half the game, while the actual plot of this entry in a theoretically science fiction series goes on up in space without him! Eventually the issues of importance to the entire universe find Fayt and abruptly yank him back to where things that are actually significant happen. So abruptly, in fact, that it almost feels like halfway through making the game a new director got hired, walked into SquareEnix’s offices, and screamed, “Whatever you thought this game was going to be about, drop it! We’re doing things my way now!”** It’s just too bad that he didn’t arrive to kick start the game’s plot a lot earlier. Because a 25 hour generic fantasy prologue detour to my inventive scifi epic is too goddamn long.

* Yeah, yeah, I know, Roxas is super important to the Kingdom Hearts series overall. Fine. But he’s really not all that significant for THIS installment. His presence in KH2 mostly serves to set the possibility (which SquareEnix exploits as shamelessly as they do ineptly) for spin-offs about the series’s side lore. If you took him out of KH2, not a lot would need to be reworked, and those changes wouldn’t be especially sizable.

** I know, of course, that this did not happen. Because when SquareEnix decides to play musical chairs with its development staff on a title, what you get isn’t an improvement. What you get is a convoluted, incredibly boring boondoggle of a game that throws every sensible, time-tested rule of narrative it can find into the trash bin.