Archive for January 2013
Fred is joined by Derrick of All Games and Rob “Trees” from EZ Mode Unlocked to talk about Atari, Inc.’s illustrious past in light of the information it is entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy (don’t worry, the company will survive no problem, they’re just restructuring). We discuss the history and origins of Atari and what the company did after splitting off from the games division.
I’ve only just begun Persona 3 with about five hours under my belt, but already I can tell I’m going to like this game. It’s a massive hybrid of so many genres woven together in a nice JRPG shell that sucks you in and gets you hooked, fast – just one more day, am I right? I’m glad to see that, too, because having just completed both Shin Megami Tensei Persona and Persona 2 (both Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment) I was beginning to fear I was missing something. That’s because by all accounts the first two installments in the Persona series (Persona 2 was split into two games and up until recently Innocent Sin was never technically available in the US) are a dated, rough ride through all of the confines and setbacks of traditional JRPGs along with a steep difficulty and very complex battle system to boot. From the start, both games are a daunting task and none of the remakes update the gameplay at all. In the end I only made it through with step-by-step instructions in a strategy guide, lots of patience, and a little luck. This is not what I signed on for and given the current landscape of this genre it appears that for most gamers the PS1 outings of Persona are caught between two amorphous worlds (much like the characters themselves) when the genre was drastically changing. After somewhere between 150-250 total hours to complete (there is no game clock, I’m completely guessing), a total of five different games, and an incredible hunger to extract the draw of the early iterations of the series I must issue a strong suggestion to bypass Persona’s roots and start with the third title, you’ll be thankful you did.
Establishing the PS1 Iterations
Persona games are always the story of a group of teenagers caught in a disaster that leads to the end of the world. Demons have fallen upon our world and threaten to end it (this is a common theme in all of the Megami Tensei titles, which revolve around demon summoning). Unlike most teens, this group is special because they can summon strong beings under their control, named “persona,” that can assist them in fighting these demonic forces. Not only that, but the group soon finds that they have transported to an alternative dimension where everything looks the same, but nothing feels or acts like they are used to.
They are unique in comparison to most JRPGs of the late 90s because they take place in the modern day. Almost every other title took place in a fantasy setting or the ever popular neo future or cyberpunk distant future. Despite the familiar setting, the minutia of the world in Persona games has that perfect tweak between reality and game. Along with the modern setting come locations and situations that any gamer can be familiar with including interpersonal relationships, the stress of school, and just trying to be around for your eighteenth birthday. When you’re first introduced to this world, at least in my case, you fall in love with it and settle yourself in for the long journey ahead.
Then the gameplay gets in the way and totally screws everything up. The series’ biggest flaw is that it’s overcomplicated and redundant in spite of itself. There’s a sense of urgency in every task you embark on (and lets not forget the world is coming to an end), so you would think that where to go next and tasks to perform would be clearly explained. Nope, without a guide I wondered around lost for hours before finally deciding that instead of writing down all the information that’s casually conveyed in volumes of dialogue that I could just get simple information like the next location to go to and speed up the process. Not only that, but the battle system is complicated, integrating a grid-based distance system when partaking in turn-based battles. This isn’t a bad thing by itself until you realize all of the options you have in battle with the “try it and see what happens” method clearly being the intended approach. You can battle with your melee weapon (and depending on class or gender of the character you can wield different items), your ranged weapon (always a gun, but again it’s gender and character specific), your persona(s) – each with their own set of moves and leveling moves, your items, the ability to interact with a creature, and to top it all off just about every other non-combative option I’ve ever seen in an RPG. I know some of you that have played Persona 3 and Persona 4 want to jump in and tell me it’s the same – it’s not, you’re wrong, it’s not streamlined at all like it is in the later titles. Most of the time you will get stuck trying to use a weapon that doesn’t have the right range or in an interaction that won’t net any results, which is frustrating because in many battles every decision counts. You can’t just ignore these options either, though, because each enemy has a complex system of what they’re vulnerable to, what they absorb, what they counter, and how they respond. You also need to communicate and interact to get more cards, the currency for which to buy personas, a fact that forced me to start over 10 hours in my first playthrough because I was unaware of. Even with a store bought guide I was overwhelmed just looking at all the charts, graphs, and profiles for the enemies, weapons, and battle system. I don’t know how you guys in the mid 90s did it, but I don’t have time for this.
Aside from the complication, the games are severely slow paced and held back by all the worst aspects of JRPGs. Your random battles happen every three steps and in dungeons there are little invisible floors that give out and force you to backtrack through half the thing (with dozens of random battles in tow) in order to re-attempt to get around the gapped floor. The intro to Persona 3 is roughly an hour or two to get going and through your first “dungeon”, which took easily 5-10 hours in the originals. At first you fight all these random battles thinking you’re getting in some serious grinding and leveling nicely for the more tough fights, after which you realize that this is the normal pace of the game and you’ll be doing hundreds (literally) more fights to actually grind. It’s just too much repetition that slows the game’s pace and plot to a crawl. This is especially true in the first game, which I would have given up on long before the end had it not been for the fact that it was portable. Thanks to the fan translation, full use of a guide, and knowledge of the series tropes I went in to Persona 2 much more prepared for what lay ahead. The only repetition that I can speak positively of is the main theme songs. In all of these games you will hear one track replay for your entire adventure, and even though it’s an upbeat J-pop song that has awkward lyrics when translated to English, I loved them all. I can’t explain it, but I’m immediately hooked to all of the various main themes in each game and would gladly listen to them again and again even now.
As for what games I played, these are the games that have released for America (one is a fan translation):
- Revelations: Persona (PS1), remade as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona (PSP)
- Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2 – Innocent Sin (PS1, Japan only, Fan remake available), remade as Persona 2: Innocent Sin (PSP, released in America)
- Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2 – Eternal Punishment (PS1, title of game in Japan only, it was released as Persona 2 in the US)
I played a few hours of all of these, but when it came to playing through and completing the game I played Persona on the PSP, Innocent Sin fan remake on a modded PS1, and Eternal Punishment on PS1 (I played the only version we got, the Persona 2 original game). Despite which version you play, the gameplay remains the same, which is the one thing I wanted to have updated.
Persona and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2 are a lost art and those that played them when they first released have fond memories of the games. Unfortunately to the modern gamer there just isn’t enough time and patience to justify returning to the roots of the series. In truth, they all tell the same basic story and Persona 3 is just another re-telling with a modified interface and updated gameplay (exactly like we’ve seen with Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest). It pains me to say it, but if you played Persona 3 or 4 and think that going back to the originals might be a good idea, you won’t find much similarity between the early titles and the modern ones. At the same time there are some people who love nothing more than 100 hours of endless, mindless, grinding and learning every aspect of a game complete with huge flow charts. If this is your idea of fun, then these games and many others like it from the 80s PC world are here for the taking. As for me, it was an experiment that I admit will never happen again. I don’t feel accomplished to having played them, I just feel like I wasted far too much time when I should have just started with Persona 3.
Fred and Rob “Trees” discuss Rare titles. We actually mean the developer Rare as opposed to video games that are considered “rare.” Originally formed as Ultimate Play The Game, we go over the history and game library of one of the most influential and abundant 2nd party developers on Nintendo’s platforms.
As promised, here’s gameplay footage of Nightmare on Elm Street for the NES:
Ron Gilbert, known mostly through the retro circles as the creator of Maniac Mansion and various other games that ran on the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) engine, said it best way back in 1989 when he wrote his rant entitled “Why Adventure Games Suck.” In it Gilbert attacks the myriad of tropes and issues he foresaw with the very genre that made him famous. It’s quite an impressive read and I suggest you all check it out because there are things he mentions within that piece that are still true today.
All snark aside the point-and-click adventure genre, which saw its largest degree of popularity in the mid-late 80s and early 90s, was always doomed to fail. Not quite a game, not quite a movie (Gilbert is the apparent father of the term “cutscene” because of script he wrote in Maniac Mansion referring to scenes you were forced to watch as “cut-scene”), and despite its general solid writing definitely not a book. It spins a yarn and in many cases tosses in some comedy as one of the only gaming genres that can still control timing without forcefully restricting the player. In concept the genre seems perfectly suited for being a form of interactive fiction and one who hasn’t played these titles may wonder why it performed so poorly and had such a short shelf life in the industry. This is because you haven’t played an adventure game. As enticing as the chuckle-filled story may seem, point-and-click adventure titles were still video games and thus had to adhere to certain rules. No one has quite found the balance and I do believe nostalgia is to blame for the reason anyone still likes these games, because the balance between telling a story and making a game has never found its happy medium. Before you kill me, let me explain.
If you’re going to get started in the point-and-click adventure genre it’s probably best to begin with Gilbert’s first, and probably best, title Maniac Mansion. In it you will select from a series of teenagers sneaking into a house to find the jock’s girlfriend who was abducted shortly before the game begins. As you progress you will encounter various items within the house from the over-sexual Nurse Edna to a tentacle randomly sticking out of the floor (and it talks). Each scenario is more absurd than the last and upon completion of the game, regardless of which ending you get, the impression it leaves is unforgettable. That is, unless you’ve never played it.
If you haven’t then you may have nothing more than a series of turmoil and annoyance at the limited tropes of gameplay that if you don’t give up the game will block progression for you. Maniac Mansion is one of the first titles in a slew of games that had fail states, missed items or scenarios that prevent you from moving forward in the game, hidden clues, impossible puzzles, and plenty more to complain about. Did I mention that when you hit most of these problems you’re never alerted to that fact? Yeah, you can screw up and get stuck in the dungeon for the rest of time but no matter how many hours you spend there the game will never tell you that your attempts are futile. Nope, it’ll let you roam the dungeon, stuck, forever. Perhaps you want to pick up a walkthrough – those are quite popular with the gaming crowd returning to the past. Nope, that won’t help you much either because in trying to figure out where you went wrong you’ll have to read through a step-by-step scenario of how to complete the game, including many actions you may have never encountered or had no idea about, and have all the good parts spoiled for you. Oh yeah, and you still may not be able to pinpoint the mistake that proves you’re stuck for good. This is just Maniac Mansion, I’m not even getting into forgetting to pick up that one item in King’s Quest II that will prevent you from beating the game many hours later or Gabriel Knight 3 that for some reason wants you to copy a driver’s license picture by adding a mustache to the guy on the DL and yourself without so much as a hint. Bulls**t, right?
So why do some people still play these games? As I said before: nostalgia. Either you’ve played the game a million times and you know when to grab that glass or find the key in the envelope, giving those that have never seen the solution and question your logic nothing more than a slight shrug as you do so, or you’ve played so many of these games you’re acutely aware of the tropes. That latter is often still not a sufficient enough asset to justify taking on some of these titles.
Okay so you’ve figured out that your audience needs a little support have you. Perhaps a hint system to get them through or the removal of death states so as not to waste tens of hours as your player fails time and time again. Then you find yourself with the complete opposite problem: it’s boring. Nothing really happens and you never get the satisfaction of solving any puzzles because that stupid hint button is so large and in your face that after a few minutes of frustration you push it. Let’s face it, even as hardcore gamers we only stop ourselves from cheating because there’s no easy way to do so. Near the end of this genre in the 90s, the first game that comes to mind being Phantasmagoria, a horror-esque title from King’s Quest creator Roberta Williams. If you feel the need, and many will, you can literally let the hint system walk you through 90 percent of that game without so much as a single intelligent thought. You might very well need to because adventure fans tend to think themselves above a game like this and those looking for an interesting new computer game weren’t ready for the confines of the genre.
Even nowadays with the resurrection of the point-and-click adventure with pioneer Telltale Games it’s nearly impossible to fail and almost every solution is all but explained to you. This explains why I can’t seem to complete any of the developer’s games (sans the most recent, The Walking Dead) without getting incredibly bored. I feel like I’m just going through the motions, which isn’t satisfactory even when the game is a beloved franchise like Back to the Future. It’s too detailed and long to just walk through it but the “game” part just isn’t all that fun.
Contemporary Adventure and Things to Come
Full disclosure, The Cave, Gilbert’s newest title that promises to re-invent the point-and-click adventure and “get it right” came out today and I have yet to play it. With that in mind, I’m going to proceed with my next comments about the current state of this genre with the caveat that it doesn’t include The Cave.
Nowadays the point-and-click genre is picking up steam again and bold promises come from all around. Telltale is improving, impressing me greatly with last year’s The Walking Dead, and both Tim Schafer (creator of Maniac Mansion‘s sequel Day of the Tentacle) and Ron Gilbert have games on the way. All things considered it’s looking good for fans of the genre but I have yet to see anything that speaks to many of the problems demonstrated here or in Gilbert’s aforementioned essay. The Walking Dead earned game of the year from Spike’s VGAs and yet I still argue it’s not really a video game. Sure, it’s a great title that easily has 2012’s best story, but it’s a lackluster gaming experience at best. It still suffers the tropes of getting you stuck with no idea what to do but also removes any setback of dying and thus can make for some aggravating moments when stuck. Not only that, it’s completely linear, forcing players in a smoke-and-mirrors world where choice seems like an option but the outcome always remains the same. It’s not bad by any means, but it still proves to be tied down to the limits of the genre. These gaming greats of adventure’s past are promising to overcome those obstacles – and my prayers are with them because I personally believe these limitations cannot be overcome due to the nature of the genre – but as it stands this has yet to be accomplished. In the end it’s a lot of promise and a ton of faith with the hope that someone can best a concept that has been around more than 20 years and still can’t find a decent balance.
Perhaps adventure games are not dead. Perhaps they don’t suck. Perhaps there’s some kid out there that can pick up Maniac Mansion tonight on SCUMM VM and after a few hours be changed forever. Somehow, though, I doubt that’s a common case. It just seems like an alternative to the hybrid nerd that loves both literature and gaming – they get a chunk of what they’ve always wanted out of either. Until you see literature buffs pick up a controller or gaming buffs pick up a book as the result of these titles, I’m still not convinced. Oh well, either way, adventure gaming is a thing and there’s a strong loud fan base that will take offense to this blog post ever being written. As for me, I still can’t manage to stomach any title in the genre that I haven’t already beaten back when I was a kid and remember every step required like the muscle memory of riding a bike.
I know it seems like a cop out, but I would like to state for the record that despite my criticism that these titles have not succeeded in the goals they wish to fulfill, that these are in no way poor games. In fact, when compared to many of the time period they were released, they stand out in the group. This also says nothing for the innovation that has been integrated into every genre moving forward from the shooter to even the fighter. Unfortunately this integration has seemed to only limit further the need for the genre overall. There’s a place for adventure games, but it’s a tight niche.
Fred and Rob “Trees” from EZ Mode Unlocked get together and talk about the various television game shows and cartoon shows revolving around video games on television in the 1980s and 1990s. With a little time left over, they even get into some of the shows from the UK and Japan.
Released: September 1985
Developer: Nintendo Creative Department
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $5.79 (used), $1,000.00 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Other Releases: Yes – SNES (Super Mario All-Stars), Gameboy Color (as Super Mario Bros. Deluxe), Gameboy Advance (Nintendo Classics), Wii (Super Mario All-Stars Wii)
Digital Release? Yes – Virtual Console for both Wii and 3DS
This week we celebrate our game club by discussing the entire plot of Chrono Trigger. We cover the game start to finish, touch on side missions, and discuss the universal ending. We also remind you of January’s game club and pose a question for the game club in February. This show is for those that have previously played Chrono Trigger or would like to hear the plotline in lieu of playing the game.
Happy New Year! This week we discuss an old Retronauts tradition of delving into the past in 5 and 10 year intervals. We discuss 1973, 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993, 1998, and 2003 including all the significance to gaming Fred can cram into 90 minutes. There’s also an early special announcement of our show going live on All Games starting Sunday, January 6.