Misadventures in Romancing SaGa, part 1 of ???

In retrospect, my attempt to do a SaGa theme month for November was… well, not a bad idea, really, but terribly misguided. Here I was, thinking I’d be able to blow through Romancing SaGa 1, 3, and the heavily SaGa-inspired Legend of Legacy all in the course of a month. Not only did that not happen, but I learned a very hard lesson: SaGa games beyond the initial batch of localized Final Fantasy Legend titles require an intense persistence and dedication on the part of the player. The only way these games reward you is if you’re willing to put a hefty amount of time and effort into learning their weird quirks.

Not only that, but you have to be prepared to mess up. Like, a lot.

So in the time I’d hoped to have completed three games, I wound up kind-of-completing… one. Sort of. Actually, I didn’t finish Romancing SaGa at all. Instead, I got to a point where I realized “Holy crap, going into this totally blind was a real bad idea and I’m gonna start over now that I’ve learned what it is I should actually be doing.”

Yep, you heard me. I’m going to toss all my Romancing SaGa progress out the window and restart again at some point down the line. I’m thinking in… March or so? So consider this Part One of a continuing RS1 travelogue, with a continuation down the line once I’ve played through a few other SaGa titles and had some time to read over guides more thoroughly.1

So, the question is: What went wrong this time through, and what did I learn from it?

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  1. I was offered a copy of the PS2 Romancing SaGa remake, as well, which I’ll likely also play through at some point.

Disturbing Game Overs, Part II: YOU ARE DEAD

We recently covered the phenomena of arcade games using the implication of terrible things happening to the hero and/or the world, so now it’s time to move on to the second kind of disturbing game over: games that rub it in extra hard when you’ve run out of time, lives, and continues. You’ve really screwed the pooch now, and by god, you are going to have to face the consequences!

In the interests of keeping this from getting much too long, I’ve decided to forgo game overs from survival horror games. Bloody, horrifying deaths come with the territory in those games, so it’s not particularly interesting to investigate them, in my opinion.1 In a way, it’s a more shocking if the creepy and/or shaming elements come completely out of left field than it is if you’ve dealt with the threat of evisceration for your entire playtime.

There are also a few more obscure samples I want to include, but I lack the capability to capture them myself at the moment, and all the pre-existing images and footage of them online are woefully sub-par in quality. There’s a good chance this feature will be revised in the future to include these once I’m able to adequately showcase them, so keep your eyes on the Gaming.moe Twitter for updates.

Without further ado, it’s time to venture into a world of shame and failure!

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  1. Well, that and a lot of the survival horror game over footage available online come from accounts that seem really creepily obsessed with collecting death clips of female game characters. Nope nope nope

Disturbing Game Overs, part I: A Quarter Can Save a Life

It’s been argued that one of the most interesting things about games is that they allow the person engaging them to feel guilt and responsibility for their actions, something that can’t be done in more passive forms of media. Designers have actually been utilizing this since the early days of the medium as a way to belittle players’ lack of skill (and, hopefully, inspire them to invest more time/money to get better): think of how Missile Command used “THE END” when you lost all cities instead of “GAME OVER.” Guess what, jerk, your failure with the trackball just doomed humanity! Even a small change like that left a big impact on player psyches, and the medium has since evolved, finding plenty of new and exciting ways to make you feel really bad about what you do in games.

But for whatever reason, I’ve always been fascinated by the game over guilt trip. While most games just come to a screeching halt once the lives and health have run dry, others really go the extra mile to make you feel awful about your failure. I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years looking into these , and over the course of my research, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of disturbing game overs:

A. Things are exceptionally grim, and only the power of a continue can stave off this impending doom! You will continue, right? You don’t want this horrible thing to happen, right?

B. YOU DONE FUCKED UP BUDDY, NOW DEAL WITH IT

Both of these are fascinating in their own way, but as a fan of old arcade games, A is particularly interesting. Arcade games are about spending money for play time, and the end goal for the operator is to maximize profits, so keeping play time down (so other folks can spend money for a turn on the machine) is an ideal. Continues might seem opposed to this concept, but they actually play right into it: You’d get more time-for-money-spent value if you started the game over than you would if you credit-fed, as difficulty tends to scale higher the further you get and credits usually last for shorter and shorter stretches of time. It’s why the one-credit clear is such a mark of pride among the biggest arcade: you’ve basically given “the man” trying to squeeze you for money the middle finger with your mad arcade game skillz.

So, in the interests of getting players to continue more, the devs began to put in continue screens that insinuate that a terrible fate awaits if you don’t put that next quarter/yencoin in. Some, like Blue’s Journey/Raguy by ADK, make a heartfelt emotional plea (and then call you names).

Others, meanwhile, place your character – or their loved ones – in more immediate danger. Won’t you spare a quarter to save our heroes from their doom?

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Game Commercial Music Highlight: Shakunetsu no Fire Dance

I made my third guest appearance on Laser Time’s Vidjagame Apocalypse podcast this week to talk about all manner of subjects. Since the show actually isn’t live yet as of this writing, I’m going to try not to spoil too much, but at one point I start going off into the history of Compile and the Puyo Puyo puzzle game series. Puyo Puyo Tsuu/2 was a massive hit in Japan and still considered a pinnacle of the series by many, but it also marks the apex of Compile’s meteoric, Puyo-fueled rise and fall into massive financial problems.

But that’s not the focus of this little featurette, given that I babbled about it at length on the program. Instead, I’m here to talk about Puyo Puyo Tsuu’s commercials; Specifically, a song that was used in them: Shakunetsu no Fire Dance (“Red-Hot Fire Dance”).

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We’re used to songs being used to promote products in North American television commercials, but usually it’s stuff that’s already established as familiar through months or years of airplay. Japan has a tendency to tie new songs and talent more directly to products, often launching singles to accompany a shiny new ad campaign for a product. This is beneficial to both parties involved: the product being advertised gets association with a potentially hot up-and-coming talent, and the artist/song get additional exposure as people remember the catchy song snippet that played on TV and think, “hey, I should seek out the whole thing!” (The commercials display the song title and artist name specifically to help people remember what they heard.) Games utilize this tie-in strategy fairly often. Just look at Final Fantasy as an example: All of the single-player installments since 8 have prominently featured a vocal song in Japanese advertisements and in-game.

Puyo Puyo 2’s advertising hopped on the song tie-in bandwagon even earlier than Square did. They didn’t look too far outside of the firm for composition and vocal talent, however – they enlisted Katsumi Tanaka, one of their in-house composers,1 to do the vocals for the song they would use to promote Puyo Puyo 2 in various ads (and sell as a CD single later on). The result is Shakunetsu no Fire Dance, an infectiously catchy little dance number that ranks among my favorite pieces of promotional game music.

Since commercials are so short, however, you could only hear the whole thing on CD, in music videos,  and in live show. Here’s a  bonus video from the Saturn version of Puyo Puyo Tsuu featuring a (very heavily compressed) FMV of a live performance:

Even better: There are multiple language versions of the song! First off is the Korean version:

And guess what, there’s an English version too! Turn on the Japanese comments on Nico to see the subtitles with the transcribed English lyrics – they’re definitely off in that grammatically incorrect direct translation way, but at the same time, they actually do make sense. That’s more than you can say for a lot of English versions of Japanese songs.

The song’s legacy didn’t end with ads and performances in the mid-90s, however: it also features as Arle’s theme in Puyo Puyo Da!, the (rightfully) ignored dancing game spinoff of the Puyo series.

That’s more than anyone else has written about this weird little footnote in Puyo history in English, I think. How about we wrap this up with a Vocaloid cover?

  1. He composed the fantastic Musha Aleste soundtrack, among many other things!

Do Run Run: The Overlooked Runs of Summer Games Done Quick 2015

Last week, another fine Games Done Quick event went down in the books, and as always, there were plenty of highlights: Swordless Zelda! More high-speed Tetris TGM! Races upon races with photo finishes! We watched, we stared in awe at amazing gaming skill, and we collectively raised $1.2 million dollars for Doctors Without Borders – a new record for the SGDQ events. But, as always, there are a lot of fantastic runs scheduled during an event that goes on for seven straight days that people with jobs and sleep schedules have to miss, particularly of games that might not be headliners like the Megamans and Marios and Metroids of the world. I’ve gone through and picked out some of my favorite runs from the event that you may have overlooked. Grab a drink, sit down, and watch some awesome folks play through some obscure (and a few not-as-obscure) games with amazing speed!

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How to Power Up the Nintendo World Championships

Boy, E3 sure was a thing this year, wasn’t it? Announcements were made, expectations were blown away, and as many a thinkpiece writer has pointed out, it was like we were transported back into the 90s. I mean, look at how it started – Nintendo revived the Nintendo World Championships after 25 years of dormancy!

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The NWC was one hell of a great way to start E3 this year. After seeing the great reception last year’s Smash Bros invitational got at E3, Nintendo decided to do something similar this year – but hold it before E3 rather than during to kick everybody’s week off in a Nintendo state of mind. And it worked!

…Mostly. As fun as the event was, there were several hiccups throughout that made me wince internally throughout the program. There were a lot of good things – and really, the decision to end on some downright evil Super Mario Maker levels was absolutely perfect – but if Nintendo wants to make this a regular thing from now on, the modern NWC has a long ways to go.

As I was thinking about this topic, I caught this episode of The Final Split, Go1den’s speedrunning-centric Twitch show, where NWC15 invitee Bananas talked about the experience. I highly recommend a watch, as there’s a lot of amusing stories in there about the run-up and the event.1 Going from her account, one gets the impression that things really were rather rushed and disorganized on Nintendo’s end.

Taking all of this into consideration, I decided to write an editorial of my own. How can the NWC improve from this point forward? I’ll posit several ideas.

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  1. The Final Split is a really fun show to listen to in general, as well, and I wish Go1den and company would put it up in a more traditional podcast format.

Arcade Road Trip: Grinkers Grand Palace (Eagle, Idaho)

I’ve mentioned Game Center CX more than a few times in my writing, and for good reason – it’s a fantastic show that everyone who enjoys older games will appreciate. But while the most popular segment of the program among most fans is the Arino’s Challenge portions, I personally enjoy the “Tama-ge” bits a lot more. In these parts of the show, Arino travels to visit various arcades, large and small, across Japan. It’s a wonderful combination of travelogue and nostalgia, showcasing the (sometimes very odd) places where arcades turn up, the games and atmosphere that make that particular arcade experience interesting, and the people who maintain these game centers. It’s both inspiring and a bit depressing, as the number of mom-and-pop arcades in Japan has been plummeting over the last decade. Oftentimes, it feels like Arino’s travels are an attempt to encourage people to help preserve a dying cultural institution (the segment’s title means “You should visit this game center sometime”).

When I was a teenager, I used to love doing what Arino did during my family’s trips across the country – looking up arcades in the area, visiting them, and seeing what they had to offer. (I was especially devoted to this when Virtua Fighter 3 was really, really hard to find in North America outside certain urban areas – my hunts were often targeted towards finding that particular game.) Nowadays, this is hard to do, because the state of Western arcades is utterly miserable. Most arcades these days – the ones that are still around, anyway – are parts of massive “entertainment centers” that make far more off of redemption games than dedicated video cabinets, and what they do have for games is often old and suffering from disrepair. But there are enthusiasts out there trying to find ways to preserve the more traditional, video-game-focused arcade experience: one of the more popular modern concepts is the “barcade,” a combination of pub/eatery and retrogaming arcade catering to an older clientele.

Generally, most of my experiences with said “barcades”1 have been kinda blah – the alcohol part doesn’t do much for me since I’m one of those irritating teetotalers, and the game selection is generally pretty similar across many of these establishments: Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, a bunch of Donkey Kongs, some Space Invaders, probably a Tapper or two to fit the bar theme, Robotron 2064, and a Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat to get some 90s kid cred. These are good and all, but they’re also pretty easy to find. What I’m interested in are titles that you don’t see everyday, particularly Japanese games from the mid-late 80s – stuff that came out after the crash-correction of the Western video game market in the earlier part of the decade and is considerably less common as a result.

I discovered one such arcade on a recent trip. While I spent most of my life in Iowa, my parents retired to the Boise area in Idaho a couple years ago, so I went to visit my parents there over Mother’s Day weekend. My dad suggested stopping by a few arcades while I was there, and one of them was a place called the Grinkers Grand Palace in the Boise suburb of Eagle. It’s nestled into a corner of a strip-shopping center that doesn’t look like the kind of place that would host a bar-arcade. When I stepped inside, however, I knew I had found someplace very special. So today, I’m going to imitate our beloved Kacho Arino and tell you: you should go to Grinkers sometime!

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  1. Note that I’m referring to the “barcade” as a concept – there is an actual chain of these sorts of places called Barcade in the NYC area, which I hear are pretty awesome. Don’t confuse the two!

Don’t touch this: the bizarre gaming influence of MC Hammer

The late 80s and early 90s are riddled with stories of meteoric rises to stardom and falls from grace, but perhaps none burned out quite as spectacularly (and publicly) as M.C. Hammer. We often forget just how much of A Big Deal Hammer and Vanilla Ice and other 90s musicians/groups were1. Honestly, I’m not sure if even modern social media powered bands like One Direction come close to just how visible, overblown, and heavily merchandised Hammer and company were. We laugh at the ridiculous crap their faces were plastered upon now, but at the time, these guys defined coolness to young people.

Yes, MC Hammer had it all in the early 90s: mansions, racehorses, a vanity Saturday morning cartoon series, and the admiration of millions, yet numerous poor investment decisions, a taste for expensive theatrics, and constantly overextending himself eventually bit him in the ass. I’m honestly surprised people didn’t see it coming at the time – watching the 2 Legit 2 Quit music video again, over 20 years after its debut, will rid you of any pity you might feel for his extravagant lifestyle and rapid crash really fast. The amount of sheer ego and hubris on display here is simply jawdropping.

One privilege that major English language recording artists have is that their stuff faces very few barriers to worldwide acceptance. Popular English music is inherently a global thing, just like Hollywood films, even in territories where English isn’t widely spoken. Such is the case with Japan as well, where audiences were equally taken by Hammer’s impressive dance moves, slick beats, and flashy performances. While his contemporary Vanilla Ice may have earned eternal infamy in Japan by becoming a nasty Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure villain with a prominent bulge, Hammer wound up getting tributes (and attempted tributes) in a handful of games, including an all-time classic.

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  1. NKotB comes to mind, as well – we still haven’t found their NES game yet, but the prototype box has changed hands for a ridiculous sum.

Mystery Tournaments are the best tournaments (and SpeedRunsLive MT6 was especially great)

If you’ve been to a nerdy convention with a game room, you have doubtless encountered some manner of gaming tournament – usually for stuff like fighting games or FPS titles, maybe some RTS or MOBA sessions if someone arranged a LAN setup for PCs. Every so often, however, you’ll encounter the fabled “mystery tournament.” The idea behind these is that you get a bunch of people to play through a gauntlet of different games with varied short goals, eliminating players along the way until you wind up a champion. Pretty typical, save for the multi-game part – the catch is that none of the players know in advance what is going to be played, and typically the game choices are obscure or off-the-wall so that players, in all likelihood, have never played them before.

Mystery tournaments are tons of fun for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, they present a playing field that’s a bit more level – everyone’s going into these games at least semi-blind, so you don’t have the “oh, I’m out of practice” reluctance that would come when considering entering specific titles you may not have had time to play. Another factor is that they test a completely different set of skills than a typical game tournament: whereas a fighting game tournament might test your ability to compete against several different characters and individual playstyles in a single game you’re intricately familiar with, a mystery game tournament challenges your ability to quickly learn rules and figure out effective means of play coming from no familiarity at all across multiple titles. Sure, having a good knowledge of action games might be helpful when you’re given a random platform title to play, but what happens when you get something totally new like an unreleased indie game with completely bizarre mechanics that the dev gave to the tourney organizers? You’d better be able to learn, and quickly.

The absolute best thing about mystery tournaments, however, is the games themselves. You’re given an opportunity to discover interesting titles – some of which you’d never consider playing or overlook amongst your already-massive backlog – within a fast-paced and competitive environment. Now, this certainly isn’t the best way to first experience some games, but getting (or even just seeing) that taste of a game from a mystery tournament can be enough to get people interested in exploring it further. For example, when competitive indie darling Nidhogg showed up at the finals of a Northwest Majors mystery tournament, it got a whole heaping of hype and attention1:

Or check out the finals for Lethal League, from UFGT9:

Of course, the games don’t necessarily have to be obscure – you can take old favorites and put new and unexpected twists on them. UFGT was very well known for this, their mystery tournaments included stuff like Spinjustice (playing Injustice while people spin the chair you’re sitting in slowly), Marvel vs. Capcom 2 all-Thanos teams, Soul Calibur 2 on DDR pads (see the first part of the video above), and last year’s surprise ender Don’t Break The Ice:

It’s great on many levels: organizers can showcase games that they want to give more attention and think players would enjoy, participants get to explore a bunch of old and new games they may have otherwise overlooked, and developers can showcase, build hype, and get feedback from players in an exciting environment.

I’d like to encourage people to organize and participate in in-person mystery tournaments, which is why I’m writing this – to help bring more awareness to the format. But it can be difficult: having a bunch of different games usually means having a bunch of different consoles and controllers to manage, which can be a tech nightmare, especially when running on a tight convention schedule. It’s also a fair bit harder to promote a mystery tournament given that you can’t attach the name of a popular game to it (even if you’re playing some bizarre variant of said popular game).

Fortunately, it’s also possible to organize mystery tournaments through the internet. SpeedRunsLive, who you may know as part of the folks who put on the Games Done Quick marathon, holds their own online mystery tournaments twice a year. While I’m not a speedrunner, I’m (obviously) a huge fan of the format, and the SRL Mystery Tournaments have a few interesting twists that make them particularly appealing. Read on for an account of how my Mystery Tournament 6 experience went down.

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  1. And thus Lord BBH’s shame lives on. I’M SORRY ;_;

Game music highlight: Intelligent Qube

Over the last month I participated in the SpeedRunsLive Mystery Game tournament, which just wrapped up this weekend and proved to be an exceptionally fun experience. I plan to write a more detailed post about the event shortly, but for now I can say that it’s something I highly encourage people interested in exploring a wide variety of games to participate in.

One of the games I drew (out of the four matches I played “officially”) was Intelligent Qube (“Kurushi”1 in Europe for whatever odd reason), a PSOne title that I’d heard of but hadn’t played before. It’s a very interesting game: its rules are somewhat complicated to explain but easy to grasp once you actually start playing. That isn’t to say that Intelligent Qube is easy. In fact, it’s extremely unforgiving, to the point where even minor mistakes made early on can come back and bite you in the ass later on, and a small slip-up can incur severe penalties. But every mistake you make is your own fault: the game is harsh, yet fair. It’s undeniably a clever, well-designed action/puzzle game, but it just didn’t click with me. Spatial puzzles have never been a strong suit of mine, and keeping track of the positions of multiple cubes and panels and such just kind of overwhelms me after a bit. (That, and I keep getting smooshed.) I can certainly see the appeal, but it’s not for me.

What I did really enjoy about the game, however, was its soundtrack, which took me completely by surprise. Usually when you think of puzzle game music, you think of boppy, catchy tunes that keep you alert while you’re figuring out a solution. Intelligent Qube’s soundtrack goes a distinctly different route, featuring big, bombastic orchestral pieces. Here’s my personal favorite.

Readers who were watching the stream I played IQ on can probably remember me making remarks about the music’s quality and wondering who the composer was. I suspected it was Hitoshi Sakimoto at first – it has a bit of an orchestral FF Tactics/Tactics Ogre vibe to it – but the composer is actually Takayuki Hattori, who actually does a lot of anime and live-action drama music, according to his Wikipedia entry. I suppose that’s why IQ’s soundtrack doesn’t quite give off that typical “game music” vibe.

Since I more or less stymied around stage 4 during my playthrough, I decided to look into what the game’s final stage looks like… and I’m now both impressed and terrified. There’s pretty much no way I could do this without panicking.

  1. I think this is a Japanese pun, which really leaves me wondering why the game only has this name in the EU!