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Review: Persona 3 (PS2)

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p3_boxWhile it has celebrated decades of success in Japan, the Shin Megami Tensei series didn’t even come to America until Persona on the original Playstation. It wasn’t rebranded with the classic Shin Megami Tensei prefix until the release and mainstream love for Persona 3 and I can see why. If you read back to my Persona 1 & 2 review you will see that while I dug the direction it was going, I had major issues with both games that made the 50+ hour slogs through the campaigns less than enjoyable. All of these issues are addressed in Persona 3 without letting go of the core that got gamers interested in the first place. If you are a fan of JRPGs or have never played an epic dungeon-crawling quest, you should seriously consider giving Persona 3 a play because its modern setting, streamlined battle system, and socially integrated plotline will keep you playing for tens (if not hundreds) of hours.

The basic setup in Persona 3 is that you are a male (you have a female option as well in P3: FES and P3 Portable) second year high school student (think Junior in US terms) in Japan that has just transferred to a new school. As a student to a private academy, there are some differences to the public system: the only day off is Sunday, you wear a uniform, and students live in unisex dorms. Due to overcrowding, your character moves into an available dorm that is temporarily coed. It turns out that all of this dorm’s students have one thing in common: they are able to summon beings from within them named “personas”. These personas are capable of both physical and magical powers and are an extension of the individual controlling them. You also learn that each night at midnight an alternative realm known as “the dark hour” takes over the world and certain beings are allowed to roam freely while the rest of us reside in coffin-like structures, removed from this realm. Naturally persona users are one of the beings that can roam as are evil beings known as “shadows” that take on different forms. The goal of the shadows is to end the world and the persona users are rallied to prevent this. Wouldn’t you know, the main tower/source of evil is none other than the school, which transforms into a tall castle called Tartarus at night. Quite the setup, isn’t it?

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Sure, it’s a lot to take in, but the pacing of the game moves at a gradual but consistent rate that gets you caught up within the first five hours. During this time you will become acquainted with yourself, your peers, the town, school, and the basic battle system. Right off the bat this introduction is a massive improvement from the originals that just threw you into the mix to figure it out. Along the way the battle system ramps up, requiring you to know how to counter enemies – you can potentially harm yourself, strengthen a foe, or just plain waste a turn with the wrong type of attack. This was a huge oversight in the original games because the logic for what works with and against a creature isn’t obvious and the original games didn’t provide any reference guide to learn from. Now instead of mentioning a discovered weakness mid-battle that you need to memorize, the game will analyze characters for you and remember what you learn from them. Additionally your character is the rare single entity that can control multiple personas, each with unique attributes, attacks, and requirements. This is where Persona 3 seems to combine both Final Fantasy and Pokemon for an addicting battle mechanic that makes the hours you will spend in dungeons fighting the same enemies actually fun instead of menial. My biggest gripe of the previous two games was the endless random battles that would spring up every three steps or so and drag the pace of the game to a halt. In this title the battles are instead seen and the amount of time you spend in Tartarus is completely up to you (save for the occasional story mission), so that problem is gone altogether. As for the pace, the game is broken into an entire school year – the date, day of the week, and moon cycle are constantly displayed. It doesn’t seem to matter at first, but by the middle of the campaign you will be acutely aware of exactly what the date is and what it means. As I write this it still impresses me how I went from knowing almost nothing about Persona and came out a seasoned veteran.

p3_2On top of all that you have a life to manage. Not only is this a nightly slog through more than 250 total floors of enemies, but you are a high school student that has to manage schoolwork, social circles, jobs, and even dating. If you are told to meet a professor after school on a certain date, it’s up to you to remember that and show up. The same goes for swim team practice, making friends with an old couple that runs a bookstore, and picking up a hand-crafted weapon. If you are dating a girl and do something as innocent as hanging out with another there can be consequences. All of your social links give strength to your personas, making grinding much less necessary. By the way, did you do well on those final semester exams? There are also side missions doled out by Elizabeth, an employee of the Velvet Room, which assists you in creating and managing your personas. It sounds daunting, and it will be at first, but like everything else Persona 3 develops at a pace completely under the control of the player so your progress is natural. This is why some people get to the end in 40 hours, some get to the end in 80 hours, and others get to 200 hours, because the amount of playtime, side missions, and pace are up to you. This game is as limited or robust as you make it, but you should probably plan a minimum 60 hours to even get through the main story.

p3_3While there’s a lot to enjoy with Persona 3, don’t forget that it is a classic RPG underneath it all and will have some of the tropes that come with that fact. You will spend hours grinding to that certain level or get that persona boosted up so that you can complete a quest or overcome a brutal boss. Saving in the game can be a tricky circumstance – although you are free to save almost anywhere in the game, backtracking through floors in Tartarus can be a pain. On the other hand you might encounter a random lucky enemy that takes you out instantly and lose 30 floors of progress because you got cocky. Boss battles can be a frustrating endeavor when you get a puzzle boss or seemingly overpowered boss with one fatal weakness, but the game always gives you an opportunity to save (and you’d better take it) before any such encounter. Despite the focus on social relationships, once they are maxed out the character ceases to be of much value to you and there’s no way to establish a stronger relationship than close friends. If you max out someone who is in love with you, feel free to start working on another person the next morning. I also don’t like the all or nothing mentality of this series – doing one or two side quests usually doesn’t do anything unless you remain consistent and complete all of the side quests. I must also warn about the end of the game (don’t worry, no spoilers) where you will be forced to make a decision and there are drastic differences to the game depending on what you do. In fact, the “true” ending can only be achieved with one of these options, so I highly recommend you save before any major choices.

By the time you reach the end of Persona 3 you will have an intimate relationship with the game, something I rarely experience. In order to get there, though, the journey is long, sometimes tough, and time consuming. Depending on your gaming habits, you may want to consider picking up the portable version (Persona 3 Portable) on PSP, available digitally, and compatible with the Vita. Otherwise the definitive version of this game (Persona 3 FES) can be found digitally on PSN for the PS3 or in tangible disc form on the PS2. Regardless of how you obtain it, this is a new spin on the classic JRPG formula and I can safely say that I am of the converted. I rather despised most of my experiences in the first two games, but now I’m an avid fan that can’t wait to experience Persona 4. If you need something new or want to see the potential of this genre, then Persona 3 is a great way to break the ice.

Written by Fred Rojas

May 23, 2013 at 7:59 pm

Posted in PS2, PS3, PSP, Reviews

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Podcast: 9/9/99

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This week Fred and Trees set out to talk about console launches and instead dedicate an entire show to the Dreamcast launch.  There were a shocking amount of great games that assisted the launch of Sega’s most successful, albeit final, console.


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Written by Fred Rojas

May 22, 2013 at 11:00 am

Posted in Dreamcast, podcast

Podcast: Top Scores

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This week Fred flies solo again and he’s celebrating his favorite songs from video game soundtracks.  The entire history of games is reflected from 8-bit and 16-bit to the glory of CDs and red book audio.  Kick back with a good time wasting game and enjoy a journey through gaming’s musical past.


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Written by Fred Rojas

May 15, 2013 at 11:00 am

Posted in podcast

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Check This Out: Game Vault (Omaha, NE)

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At first glance Game Vault, located just outside the core downtown area of Omaha, looks like another clone of GameStop. Upon entering, you may still feel that way as most of the walls are lined with modern PS3, 360, and Wii titles along with a large flat screen television that is displaying an endless playlist of gameplay videos. It wasn’t until I began to browse the large glass cases and have a brief chat with owner Scott, who was the only employee in his store on this brisk Saturday morning, that I learned Omaha has quite a great local game store.

IMAG0567His featured glass case contained a few instantly recognizable gems of retro gaming, such as a boxed complete copy of Earthbound on the SNES (he also had a loose cart for the more budget-conscious), as well as other SNES classics like Super Metroid, Super Mario RPG, and Yoshi’s Island, all boxed and complete. Rarely have I entered a store that not only provided such care on these holy grails of gaming, a few of my friends have been searching for boxed complete copies of these games for years, but his prices were reasonable. It’s not just the SNES that he has to offer, I was stunned to find everything from a stack of Atari 2600 games to a batch of decent 3DO titles and even a Jaguar game or two. In fact, I don’t think it was possible to name a system this guy didn’t have at least a few games for (including PC games, new and old). He even had an import game section that had a mint copy of Dino Crisis on the PS1 from Japan, as if resting on the shelf just for me. Often times when you see stores like this, I remember one in particular in downtown Chicago and another in New York, that you expect heavily inflated prices. Not the case in Game Vault, Scott’s prices are fair, easily topping most of GameStop’s and eBay’s prices, and he doesn’t require a game club membership or anything to get the best price. All in all, Game Vault is one of the most diverse and well stocked used game stores around. I’m now saddened I don’t live in Omaha.

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Written by Fred Rojas

May 11, 2013 at 11:00 am

Interview: Super Icon

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Claire Hill-Whittall

Claire Hill-Whittall

Richard Hill-Whittall

Richard Hill-Whittall

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Super Icon is the independent developer responsible for the impressive retro flashback title Life of Pixel.  Aside from developing this and a few other titles on the Playstation Mobile platform, this husband and wife duo has big plans afoot, not the least being a new kickstarter project to bring Life of Pixel to a wider audience on PC, Mac, iOS, and Android (with additional content).   Recently Creative Director Richard Hill-Whittall and Claire Hill-Whittall in Business Development were kind enough to answer some questions that we at Gaming History 101 and you readers were wondering about this clear appreciation for early consoles and microcomputers.

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Written by Fred Rojas

May 10, 2013 at 11:00 am

Podcast: It’s Pronounced La-Ra

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This week Fred and Trees are talking about the Tomb Raider series and its busty protagonist Lara Croft that shadowed the video game as a pop culture icon in the late 1990s.  We discuss development, creation, and production of both Core and recent Crystal Dynamics’ vision for Lara and her many adventures.


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Written by Fred Rojas

May 8, 2013 at 11:00 am

Genre Study: Roguelikes and MetroidVania Games

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Lately many games that embrace former genres that had fallen to the wayside are making a comeback.  As a result lots of games press and developer media contacts like to coin phrases that are based on gameplay styles not many are familiar with.  When someone tells you that Tokyo Jungle is a “roguelike” or that Guacamelee is a “MetroidVania” title, it’s entirely possible you have no idea what that means.  After this article, you will no longer have that problem.

Roguelikes

Original Rogue on IBM compatible

Original Rogue on IBM compatible

You may or may not know that the roots of the roguelike come from a 1980 computer game called Rogue, which established the dungeon crawler.  This game was considered genre-changing when compared to the slower paced text adventures such as Zork and Dungeons & Dragons video game ports like Wizardry and Ultima.  Developers Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, Ken Arnold, and Jon Lane site a hybrid between both types with influences from D&D as well as the text adventure Colossal Cave Adventure, which featured a detailed description of a cave system in Kentucky that was so precise it was used by a tourist to navigate parts of the actual caves it was based on.  The result was a game where an adventurer explored a multi-floored dungeon, collecting items and facing enemies, in search of a final artifact (in this case the “Amulet of Yendor”) to complete the game.  Each floor was more difficult than the last, you could not backtrack to a previous floor, and if you died you got a game over, simple as that.  Additionally the layout of the dungeon, items, and enemies were all randomly generated, which meant you would ideally never play the same game twice.  Despite the fact that you would have to start over, the experience of playing the game assisted you in handling enemies, utilizing items, and preparing for future encounters as such that you could eventually beat the game.  Needless to say the game had a tough barrier for entry and popularized itself mostly on Unix systems in colleges across the country, but the public found it too complex and difficult.

Since then the concept originally started in Rogue was expanded upon to integrate classic RPG leveling systems, bosses, save states (for longer quests), and even a way to retrieve your items from the body of your previous adventurer.  These concepts would be applied mostly to 16-bit era Super Famicom (SNES) titles in Japan known as the Mystery Dungeon series, notably Shiren the Wanderer.  Granted both these series and Shiren would get sequels on the Wii that did come stateside, which might explain your familiarity with them now, but if you get a chance look up the fan translation patches online and check out the originals.  Later on this concept would come to light in a stronger way with Diablo, although certain characteristics of that game – like the ability to revert back to a save and the entire concept of a save mechanic – are incosistent with a roguelike.

Mystery Dungeon II: Shiren the Wanderer on Super Famicom (SNES)

Mystery Dungeon II: Shiren the Wanderer on Super Famicom (SNES)

Modern day terms, and what basically defines a title known as a “roguelike”, refer to a game that has randomly generated levels/layouts, random items/enemies, and permadeath.  Permadeath means that when you die all your levels, items, experience, gold, and even save game are completely lost and you are forced to start over.  In some cases finding your body will grant you items back, but overall there needs to be significant consequences for your actions.  Best examples of games like this are Binding of Isaac and FTL on Steam, Tokyo Jungle on PS3/PSN, Spelunky on 360/Steam, and of course Shiren the Wanderer or Pokemon Mystery Dungeon on Wii.  These are true roguelikes and there are plenty more, but I wanted to demonstrate the ones you probably have heard of.  Other titles skate the line and are (mis)labeled roguelikes like Diablo III and Dark SoulsDiablo III utilizes save mechanics and no true permadeath despite having all other aspects of a roguelike and Dark Souls suffers just the opposite with its very clear system of permadeath but lack of randomization in game design.  So there you have it, when you hear someone refer to a game as a “roguelike” you will now know what they’re talking about – assuming of course that they aren’t mislabeling a title, which happens more times than not.

Fun Fact: Did you know that before first-person shooters was a genre, FPS titles were known as “Doom clones”?

MetroidVania

This is a much simpler concept to grasp as it doesn’t quite have the rules that roguelikes do.  In truth the title “MetroidVania” is a bit of a misnomer because the genre began with Metroid, but because Konami decided to copy the format with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Metroid titles were few and far between at the time the term “MetroidVania” stuck.  Much like the roguelike, modern day programming has built up a concept such as this to give a hybrid between a game where you explore as well as overcome obstacles.  Additionally most titles in this vein require 2D sprites or polygonal renders on a 2D plane, which is ideal for fans of the sub-genre.  So basically the format that Metroid, Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night, and any Gameboy Advance iteration of either franchise is a MetroidVania.

The map of Super Metroid

The map of Super Metroid

The basic building blocks of a MetroidVania is to offer a large map that is completely available from the very start of the game.  There are no levels and setting changes (ie: planets, countries, etc), everything takes place in one pre-defined area that can be fully explored from the first moment the game starts.  From there items, doors, and enemies are scattered throughout the area to keep the character limited in his or her actions until certain points – it’s a creative way to offer some semblance of linearity to a game.  Additionally obstacles such as the aforementioned locked doors, high ledges, long jumps, and physical hazards will assist in telling the player that they will need to come back to this location once they’ve obtained the appropriate item/ability/weapon.  For this reason the MetroidVania sub-genre is extremely focused on exploration and finding absolutely every single nook and cranny the map has to offer without forcing the player to do so.  In Symphony of the Night, it’s possible to explore 200.6% of the map (but I won’t spoil how), and in almost every MetroidVania title in the Castlevania franchise you will only get a true ending after completely exploring a map and collecting everything.  This type of game has come back into style, but still remains somewhat niche given the old school mentality of this type of game and the frustrating planning involved in development.  Probably the most popular recent MetroidVania titles are Shadow Complex on XBLA, Dust: An Elysian Tale on XBLA/Steam, and just two weeks ago Guacamelee on PS3/Vita/PSN.

Fun Fact: Both the Metroid (Other M) and Castlevania (Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness) franchises migrated to a fully rendered 3D world and almost everyone, especially fans, unanimously hated it.

So there you have it.  Now you no longer have to wonder what the hell we are talking about when we discuss Roguelikes or MetroidVania titles ever again, and knowing is half the battle.

Written by Fred Rojas

May 6, 2013 at 7:29 pm

Review: Revolution X

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revx_cabConsole: Arcade
Released: 1994
Developer: Midway / Rage Software (console)
Publisher: Midway / Acclaim (console)
Ports: Genesis, SNES, Playstation, Saturn, PC/DOS
Digital Release? No (probably due to license issues)

There are some games you can’t help but adore, even if they are completely without merit.  Revolution X is definitely one of those games.  When the title released to arcades in 1994, Aerosmith’s Get A Grip album was just around a year old and with solid hits like Living on the Edge and a slew of videos featuring Alicia Silverstone (who was discovered by the band and started her career in these initial videos).  What originally started as a Jurassic Park game much in the same vein as previous title Terminator 2, Revolution X had to be retooled when Sega outbid Midway for the rights to Universal’s film.  The result is a game with more off-the-wall and undeveloped ideas than a season of Lost that involves helping children around the world, saving the band, and stopping the New World Order and its leader Helga – a nazi-esque goth queen.

revx_1Revolution X has a hell of an intro, but as we often see in games like this it’s only a matter of time until it all falls apart.  Aerosmith is performing in some drab downtown Los Angeles club (Club X) and the New World Order shows up to kidnap the band.  You start off shooting the endless supply of henchmen with CDs as your grenades and large blood spatters as you take out enemies.  After all, this is the team that gave us Mortal Kombat.  Before even entering the club you will face literally hundreds of enemies, large security bosses with shields and bulletproof armor, and a massive tank.  Once inside you will blast away at (literally again) hundreds of NWO henchmen while destroying the intro lounge, complete with Kerri Hoskins (Sonya in MK3) as thonged dancers in cages, and eventually entire the massive main area where Aerosmith is jamming away to the song Eat the Rich.

revx_3After a brief drop by the band’s dressing room and a visit from lead singer Steven Tyler, you’ll be tasked with attacking the NWO in various locations throughout the world, which also releases members of the band.  Before that it’s one action-packed crazy escape from the club before eventually destroying an attack chopper and leveling the building while you’re at it.  By now you should have spent approximately $10 or more in quarters because there’s no skill or chance in the world your health will last very long.  This is why most people have fond memories of the game, because it was so insane to begin with you can’t imagine how things could go wrong.  It does.  There are out of control school buses, natives in grass skirts of Africa that would make anyone who criticized Resident Evil 5 cringe, and eventually an endless boss battle with Helga, who sits in a re-purposed version of the final boss of Smash TV.

Home Versions

Not only was the game brought horribly to 16-bit consoles with graphics removed, sound and music (of all things) stripped, and violence toned down, but you didn’t get unlimited credits.  This made an already lackluster title impossible to boot and ruined the experience of what was designed to waste credits and eat quarters.  There wasn’t even a cheat code to get unlimited life or credits, just an eventual Game Genie code.  In addition, the dancers from the arcade were flipped to be front facing – a fact no teenage boy at the time missed.  Fortunately it was a bit of a different story on DOS and CD-based 32-bit consoles, violence was brought back in and all of the graphics, movies, and sounds were all re-integrated.  Also there’s a Pro Action Replay code on the Saturn that gives unlimited credits and any import gamer will have one of these already for the purpose of playing those Japanese gems.

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Revolution X was an example of the times and probably the last great light gun shooter from the concept that spawned with Operation Wolf.  While I don’t have a great way to capture the game in arcade form, I have provided a video of the Saturn version in its entirety for your viewing pleasure.  Enjoy.

Written by Fred Rojas

May 4, 2013 at 11:00 am

Getting It Backwards

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ds_nesVideo game consoles are one of the most interesting electronics items on the market for several reasons. Probably the most prolific is the fact that there are frequent hardware upgrades, which we call generations, that move home consoles forward. Because each new console is basically a piece of hardware frozen in time, the need to innovate and improve on future games demands that they be constantly updated. This works counter to movies or music, which see improvements from new hardware but don’t require the upgrade to enjoy the medium. Imagine if you could play Super Mario Bros. on the Wii but with drastically upgraded visuals or Dead Space on the original Playstation with the juxtaposed setback, this is exactly what we see when we watch Ghostbusters on VHS versus DVD versus Blu Ray. As a result new consoles come out all the time, typically in 5-8 year intervals, and usher in a more interactive experience – it’s important to note that the greatest difference between games and other media is that they are active, not passive experiences – and with it comes a new format for software.

Enter the concern of the consumer. It can be frustrating for both gamers and parents of gamers alike to purchase a new console, especially when it renders an entire collection on an older console useless. As retro gamers I’m sure we see the value in it, but for the majority there’s a want to move forward and never look back. Well, that is until there are enough new games to get me to migrate over. This is another slow start that prevents all but early adopters to purchase new hardware, which can then result in fewer sales. With fewer sales comes more canceled projects on new hardware, which then results in fewer sales of the hardware and the cycle continues until a console is considered dead in the water. Just look at the Virtual Boy, Jaguar, and possibly even the WiiU about this problem; developers have enough to worry about, they can’t also deal with poor penetration rate due to a false start console. One excellent solution to help usher in that awkward period between consoles is the concept of backwards compatibility, or a new console that can play a previous generation’s games.

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Written by Fred Rojas

May 2, 2013 at 6:10 pm

Podcast: Found in Translation

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This week Fred flies solo to discuss the world of fan translations.  Many titles come out in foreign lands and never make the trip over the United States, often only available in the native language of Japanese: enter the fan translation.  We discuss the roots and makeup of a fan translation and then close with a long list of the most popular ones for each console.


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Written by Fred Rojas

May 1, 2013 at 7:44 pm

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