Tuesday, December 18, 2012

1,700 Words On Two Old Video Games

Look up the opera scene in Final Fantasy VI on YouTube and you'll find comments like, "One of the most touching moments in video game history," “Such an iconic scene,” “I had tears in my eyes,” etcetera etcetera. I have one question for those people: Why?

Here's exactly how this scene comes about -- our heroes need to find a way to get to the Evil Empire. They decide to seek out this rich dude (Setzer) who owns the only airship in the world. They find him at this operahouse wooing some broad named Maria, who's playing the lead that night's show, and plans to kidnap her so they can elope (or something). Some villain conspires to mess things up for some unexplained reason. To protect her, you switch Maria out for Celes, a sorceress in your party to happens to look almost exactly like her. Celes agrees to perform opera accordingly and does so.

It's strange because the opera seems like it should be this big sweeping emotional moment (the music is undeniably fantastic), but it's not at all. The words behind what she's singing have no meaning. She's merely filling a role. She's not singing about anyone but the character in the opera. There's not even any read-between-the-lines meaning anywhere. In fact the entire scene isn't significant in the slightest to the main storyline.

Now, I will give credit where credit is due: this game shows the right way to do quick-time events, particularly here. You fight your way to the villain up in the rafters while the show continues below. While Celes is singing the opera, you have to make sure you select the right lines or you'll get booted out. Also it has to be mentioned again that the music here is fan-freaking-tastic. So at least there's that.

But otherwise, this scene is the perfect demonstration of how impressive this game can be to the point of self-indulgence. The scene is amazing on the surface, the music is as good as it gets, but it doesn't mean anything. It's just there because some developer thought, “Wouldn’t it be CRAZY if we had an opera scene? That’s unheard of!” It’s there for the sake of being there.

And that basically explains the point of the entire game. The story is gigantic – the depth in the narrative makes Chrono Trigger seem like an episode of DuckTales – and would definitely benefit from some editing, a more concise direction and something resembling a main character (Terra and Locke come the closest, but Terra isn’t even playable for a big chunk of the game and Locke is almost useless in battles), but I get the feeling the developers did not give a damn. It’s huge for the sake of being huge. There are many, many playable characters for the sake of having many, many playable characters. And so on.

Another inherent problem with having such a massive story is the minimal amount of effect that you as a player have. The way the game lets the narrative unfold essentially deems the player as nothing more than a gopher. All you’re doing is running your party from one long story sequence to the next (with a few battles in between of course). The game basically encourages you to do this too, by switching up your party as often as possible so you can see every scene. Sometimes it was pretty tiring and frustrating as you’re sitting there reading forever and waiting to actually do something. There’s too much out of the player’s control.

Don’t get me wrong, a huge part of what makes Final Fantasy VI unique is the narrative - there aren’t many other games on the SNES that had me playing for hours just to see what happened next. It has one of the all-time great video game villains in Kefka, who is truly one screwed up character. There are just as many laugh out loud moments (when you meet Gau, random Kefka stuff) as sappy moments (could they lay it on any thicker with Cyan’s backstory?), and some of it works and some of it doesn’t, but it has a very satisfying ending.

The battle system is incredibly detailed featuring all sorts of cool stuff like customizable magic, formations, relics, special abilities (one character has you input sequence of Street-Fighter style commands to execute attacks, another has a weird set of tools to choose from, another steals things, etc), not to mention tons of items and equipment. It’s extremely well done, holds up over time really well and is by far the most enjoyable part of the game. On the surface, it’s the best battle system for any RPG on the SNES.

My only criticism of the battle system is that it isn’t very balanced. The game really encourages you employ all sorts of tactical maneuvering with formations and equipment and whatever, but guys like Sabin, Edgar and Cyan are so powerful you can wipe out any enemy with the same attacks over and over regardless of what else you do. Compare this to Chrono Trigger or the Lufia series where the enemies match your increasing experience and abilities stride for stride, and the battles remain difficult without becoming frustrating. As fun as the battle system is for FF6, I never once felt I was in danger of even coming close to losing. All of the strategy seems like it’s for naught.

[Random aside: I completely understand how someone could become obsessed with this game. There’s an overwhelming amount of special abilities you can obtain for certain characters, there’s collecting all the espers, there’s having each character learn every spell from each esper, plus there’s stuff like the Colosseum, an ingenious idea where you can bet items on battles to win better items that are otherwise unobtainable. The OCD-collector gamer type would be in hog heaven here.]

Ultimately I’ll remember Final Fantasy VI for its wealth of creativity in battles, the incredible soundtrack (second to only Super Castlevania IV on the SNES) and its huge story, but I’ll also remember it all feeling kind of hollow. It’s merely an exhibition in game design, albeit an impressive one. 

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Now, the underlying genius of Chrono Trigger is how balanced it is in every aspect of the game. The enemies are never too easy or never too tough or unfair and there’s no need to level-grind at any point. As you level up, gain experience and learn spells, the enemies match your strength. The boss fights are perfectly done - each one feels like an event. Not like Final Fantasy 6 which more often than not seemed to say, “Welp, here’s another boss for ya,” out of nowhere. Magus, Black Tyrano and Lavos in particular are really built up as big deals. I really like in particular how you have to take out Magus’ underlings (Slash, Flea and Ozzie) before you face him.

One of the best things about Chrono Trigger is how it gains momentum the more you play it. By that I mean the fact that not once is there a “Now what do I do?” moment. Even after the game splits off into several different side-quests, it remains very straight-forward telling you what to accomplish. Again, balance is the key word here, balance between linear and open-ended storytelling.

Instead of accumulating just strength and experience points like most RPGs, CT rewards you with combo attacks with your teammates. Some of these are flat out awesome and powerful as hell, like Ice Sword 2, Falcon Arrow, Delta Force and Arc Impulse [or what I refer to as Finnish Flag Attack] while some are laugh out loud funny like Poyozo Dance, which is this spastic nonsensical spell involving a stuffed animal, or Frog Flare, a giant exploding frog which looks like something out of Monty Python. Accumulating these attacks is fun as hell, and it keeps the momentum of the game going.

It also contains one of the most ingenious inventions in gaming, the "New Game +" option. After you finish the game, you can go back in time as often as you'd like with the same stats, gear and weapons and try beating the game from a different point in the timeline. There are 11 different endings you can achieve (most of them are well worth it, especially the one with messages from the development crew - “Get a life!”) which puts the replay value through the roof.

The characters themselves are a strange dynamic group, all distinctly different, some cliched and some not (at least not yet): our silent hero, the runaway princess, the nerdy tech-geek, the robot, the cavewoman, the talking frog and in a neat twist you can play as one of the main villains for a good chunk of the game. Each character has at least a couple laugh-out-loud moments, even the ultra-serious Magus. (“You got whacked cuz you're weak.”)

[Brief aside: one strange bit of trivia about this game - the developers gave the English translators exactly 30 days to translate the entire game. Because they were crunched for time, some of the translators were pretty slack so we ended up with lines like that. They “fixed” that in the DS version by doing a more direct translation and as a result most of the humor was missing.]

One particular aspect I don't think can be overstated is the main villain, Lavos. Rarely in a game, especially in an RPG, does a boss actually come across as invincible. Lavos is like the Terminator: it barely says anything, you can't reason with it, it can't be stopped, it won't be stopped until you are dead and everything is destroyed. And by the way, it lives in the center of the Earth draining its life for all its worth. The final battle music is absolutely perfect and gives me chills to this day, and I've finished this game at least 25 times.

CT was released very late in Super Nintendo's run, allowing programmers to maximize everything the SNES hardware was capable of, and damned if they didn't succeed in doing that. This is about as technically advanced, in terms of overall length, visuals and sound, as any SNES game gets.

Chrono Trigger is truly the total package: It's got a great sense of humor. It's never boring - you never truly know what's going to happen next. There's a crazy amount of depth in both the story and with items/gear. There’s tons of replay value. The music is top notch, with memorable themes created for each major character and for certain events of the game. All those factors add up to this: Chrono Trigger best game the SNES has ever produced.

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