February 19, 2013

Final Fantasy Order - #11

11. Final Fantasy (Nintendo Entertainment System - 1990)

So this is where it all started. Well, not exactly. JRPGs had already been introduced, and Final Fantasy definitely took some cues from Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior for North America), which had come out a year prior. A lot of Square's early efforts were just knock-offs of games that already existed. Rad Racer, 3-D WorldRunner, and Mystery Quest were already games made by somebody else with a Square costume on. Final Fantasy wasn't any different. For as much as people tout the eternal legacy of the Final Fantasy series, if Enix's Dragon Quest hadn't been introduced first, Square wouldn't have had anything to copy off of. Luckily, both companies have since merged and laughed all that off, I'm sure.

The difference is that since Dragon Quest came out first, Hironobu Sakaguchi (the driving force behind Final Fantasy) had a blueprint to work from. Since he wasn't working totally from scratch, he was able to focus more time on not solely creating, but also improving. The battle system, storyline, character system, music, and world are all more developed (and better) than in Dragon Quest.

Right from the start, you are assigned four characters to name and select a class. The classes are Fighter, Thief, Black Belt, Red Mage, White Mage, and Black Mage. Each class has their own advantages and disadvantages. Pretty much what you would expect: White Mages can use White Magic (e.g. Cure) but have low defense, Fighters have high attack power but can't use much magic, and so on and so forth. Your characters can also be upgraded at a certain point in the game, giving them additional abilities. As commonplace as it seems today, it was a big step for back then. Being able to customize how you would be playing the game was a big deal. Sakaguchi was aiming to immerse the player in the game. The characters also don't ever speak because they are a manifestation of you. You are controlling who they are, what they're called, and how they go about saving the world.

The story is simple enough. Upon turning on the game, this text greets you:

Not the most complicated set-up in the world, but I'll take it. So your party (The Light Warriors) walks up to a castle where the king tells you to rescue his daughter from Garland, and everything just continues from there. No lengthy tutorials, no five-minute cutscenes, no character introductions, just grab and go.

Since this was 1987 (the year the game came out in Japan), space was extremely limited for games, so there wasn't really a lot of room for this stuff in the game itself anyway. This is why manuals came in handy. The manual has an extensive amount of information, not to mention an in-depth walkthrough for the entire first half of the game. It provides tips, strategies, good/bad examples of battle plans, character backgrounds, detailed maps, menu explanations, who can equip what, a list of magic spells and their effects, and more. When the vast majority of these games are picked up/bought from used game stores and private owners, they almost always only include the cartridge itself. This can be frustrating to someone who really wants to play the game, but is repeatedly confused by tiny aspects, such as, "If I pay for this weapon, will it be stronger than they one I already have? And can the person I want to have it actually equip it anyway?" or, "I can logically determine what the spells FIRE, SLEP, and QAKE do, but what about BANE, SABR, and ARUB?" Things such as "showing the stat increase/decrease while the cursor is on a weapon" are things we take for granted (and should be there anyway) today. And yes, re-releases of these older games are able to include them, but for the source material, it's not there.

Is it possible that the 1987 version of this game could have included some of those things? I would say yes, but keep in mind that it is really just an improved Dragon Quest. Square's practice at the time wasn't to make something entirely new and different, just to make something a little bit better than what was already there. I also imagine that having only one programmer working on the entire game had something to do with it as well.

The rest of the story isn't too bad for it being a basic "save the world" scenario. I did immensely enjoy the aspect of the main antagonist. After you defeat Garland early on, he has the Four Fiends (main bosses of the game) send him 2,000 years into the past, where he transforms into Chaos (basically a demon monster). As Chaos, he sends the Four Fiends into the future so they can send him (as defeated Garland) into the past so that he may become Chaos, therefore infinitely recreating the same time loop and living forever. After the four heroes defeat the Four Fiends, they are allowed to pass back through time to stop Chaos and end the destructive loop. But when they do so, they erase their odyssey from the chronicles of history. This Twilight Zone-esque ending is probably my favorite part of the entire game. The rest of the story is built around a lot of "get this" in order to "do that" events, but with interesting-enough characters and locations, it's not a totally braindead endeavor. 

The battle system is fairly simple. Your characters on the right, enemies on the left, turn-based battle system. One of my biggest frustrations with this game is the lack of an auto-targeting system (which wasn't introduced until Final Fantasy III). Example:

1. I tell my Fighter to attack the Imp in the top left. I tell my Thief to do the same. I tell my White Mage to attack the Imp below, and my Black Mage to finish off that top left Imp with a Fire spell. The action then unfolds.

2. My Fighter attacks and deals some damage. Awesome!

3. My Thief goes next. He kills that Imp! Yes!

4. One of the Imps gets to attack! Hold on, Light Warriors, we'll make it!

5. My White Mage attacks the enemy! Darn, I missed! But I'll get you next time around, you can count on it!

6. Another Imp gets to attack! Oh man, they're teaming up on one guy! Hold tight, Black Mage!

7. Now it's time for some black magic revenge! Oh yeah! He gears up and casts the spell on...empty space...and it doesn't do anything. Oh...well, that's not really what I wanted to happen. Damn, that was a wasted spell. Well, no big deal.

It's kind of a win-lose situation. I like that you really have to think several steps ahead in each battle. This is especially important when battles start to get more difficult and have different types of enemies. You kind of have to roll with the punches. However, I dislike it at times for the same reason. Early on in the game, it's not a huge deal to have your characters attack empty space because you didn't anticipate certain actions. But later on, sometimes you want to put your foot through the TV.

Imagine going through an intense, multi-floored dungeon. You're on the final floor, walking towards the boss. It's taken a lot of work to get this far and still be ready to fight that boss. As you're walking towards him, you get pulled into a random battle. Crap! Well, you can probably make it through. What's one more battle, right?

1. You order both Fighters to attack the top Mage. Not taking any chances on letting them attack your party more than they already will. White Mage ordered to cast MUTE on the middle Mage. If it can't perform magic, then it can't attack you. Black Mage ordered to cast LIT2 on the bottom mage. FIGHT!

2. Right off the bat, Mage 1 attacks your White Mage! Crap! I kind of need them!

3. Your first Fighter retaliates by attacking Mage 1. Critical hit! He's down for the count!

4. Your Black Mage casts LIT2 on Mage 3. Almost killed him! Next time, you brute!

5. Mage 2 attacks your White Mage! But they're holding in there!

6. White Mage successfully casts MUTE on Mage 2. Could have used that two seconds ago, but better late than never!

7. Your second Fighter attacks nothing! Wait, what? Dammit, I forgot both Fighters were going to take out that top Mage, but the first one got lucky! Well, hopefully that last Mage won't...

8. Attack and kill your White Mage! AHHHHHHHHHHHHNOOOOOOWHYYYYYYYY!! My stupid Fighter could have killed that Mage if I had known my first Fighter would take out his enemy all on his own! Now my White Mage is dead! ARRRGH!!


Now you have to a) try and backtrack all the way out of that dungeon, b) try and beat that boss without a healing party member, relying solely on items (which takes up a turn for other characters), or c) scream how unfair life is until your throat is bleeding, then start again from the last save and go through the entire dungeon again. And trust me, 'a' and 'b' aren't going to happen. Did you lose your White Mage because you didn't plan well enough, or because the game screwed you over? Answers will vary. There are always other choices you "could have made," but once you lock it in, that's that. Fate decides as it will. But I will say that the "DRINK" command becomes more and more applicable to real life.

The whole battle system is a double-edged sword. It's fantastic to be heavily invested in battles, where you're pitting your wits against the game's maniacal nature. But on the other hand, sometimes random chance screws you beyond sanity.

Magic works differently in this installment too. Instead of the standard "use MP to cast spells," each spell falls into a "Level". You have a certain amount of uses in a Level before it needs to be recharged.

So I can use Level 1 spells nine time, Level 2 spells six times, Level 3 spells six time, etc. Once they're drained, you have to make it back to an Inn to recharge them. You can purchase three spells per Level. However, there are four spells available to you. A spell cannot be unlearned. This element would seem more strategic if the spells had an equal pro/con list. But since many of the spells are essentially useless, it's not a hard decision to make. Some spells you can purchase have no effect on enemies, but when they use it against you, it's super effective. Why have the option to purchase it then?

Additional example: You're trying to make it to the next town on your quest. You just beat a dungeon, but you're weak. You need a tent to save on the World Map, but you don't have one. You can see the town off in the distance, salvation is near, just a few more steps...DAMN! You just got pulled into a battle with four pretty strong enemies. You only have a few spell casts left, your non-magic party members aren't looking too good, and you used all your recovery items in that dungeon. What to do?

1. You decide to have your White Mage cast their last CUR2 on your Fighter, who will be vital to surviving this conflict. Other selections are made, then the action starts.

2. Enemy 1 attacks your Black Mage. Crap, he falls! Well, you think you can still win this one without him.

3. Your Fighter attacks Enemy 1. He's down, all right!

4. Your Black Belt attacks Enemy 2. Doesn't kill him, but at least he's still alive!

5. Your Red Mage attacks Enemy 2 as well. Bingo! Down for the count! Just two left!

6. Enemy 3 attacks your Black Belt! Critical hit! Ah, he's down! Things aren't looking good, but you still have your powerhouse of a Fighter!

7. Until Enemy 4 attacks him! NO! He's dead! CRAAAAAAAP!

8. Your White Mage uses their last Level 3 spell to cast CUR2 on your Fighter's corpse! It's ineffective...

9. Your White Mage is now useless, and your Red Mage cannot make up the difference of three essentially downed party members. You get your head handed to you. Game over. Have fun starting at that last save before you even walked into that dungeon.

Now if this person had prepared more, this scenario could have been averted. They could have bought an additional Tent in the last town, or had more healing items to use in the field. Or used that last CUR2 before the battle even started, just in case. This is another factor of the game I enjoy. You are constantly thinking ahead and pre-strategizing for the whole game. "Well, if I run into (A), then I'll definitely need (B). But if run into (C), I should have some (D) on hand. I can only afford either (B) or (D), but not both without doing a lot more grinding for funds. Well, I'll go with (B) and hope for the best." It's really just a matter of how much time you're willing to spend preparing (and pre-preparing).

Graphically, the game doesn't look too bad for it's time. I actually like the fact that the battle screen and the walking around view are different. Though later games in the series would bring both together for a more seamless performance, I prefer a separate screen. The layouts of town are pretty good, with everything clearly labeled and accessible. The NPC AI is not as frustrating as it could be. If you keep walking into somebody, they'll quickly try to move to an empty square if it's available. Later games (and re-releases of this one) include a "dash" function, but I don't play the NES version lamenting the fact I don't have one. It's also a nice feature that whoever you have as your party leader is the character sprite that you see walking around on the map.

The world map is rather extensive too. The design was better than I expected upon playing it the first time. You have the ability to see the world map by pressing a combination of buttons (that's hidden in a secret message for some reason, they can't just come out and say it). All of the major locations are little blinking dots, but unfortunately they aren't labeled. So unless you remember all town names and where they're located, you might do some backtracking later on in the game. Another reason why having that manual would be helpful. Although with the internet, it's not the end of the world to look it up. I just prefer being able to lay out that map in front of me on the ground while I'm playing. You also get a variety of vehicles (including the famous airship) to travel around in throughout your adventure, which makes globe-trotting a little more speedy.

Grinding isn't really something you can avoid in this game. It's not considered ridiculous either. At the time, that's just the way RPGs were. You can expect to spend the majority of the game grinding for cash and EXP. But the way the battles work out, it's not entirely mindless. But I will say I sat down for play periods with the sole objective of grinding for an hour, in order to make the next play period more eventful and without as much hassle.

If one was really interested in trying it out, but didn't need the actual source material, the PlayStation version is bundled with Final Fantasy II (as Final Fantasy Origins) and gives the game a huge graphical and sound overhaul, not to mention an "Easy" difficulty. "Easy" really meaning "Modern." This version also included the ability to use Magic in the standard MP sense instead of the weird Levels system. It is currently available on the PlayStation Network. For the absolute best experience to date though, I'd recommend the PSP version.

The whole game (original version) isn't great, and hasn't really stood up to the test of time well. But as a relic of early JRPG construction, it's worth at least checking out. And Sakaguchi now had his own blueprint to work from, and for years the series continued to improve (sans the immediate sequel).

February 18, 2013

Final Fantasy Order - #12

12. Final Fantasy XI (PlayStation 2 - 2004)

Excuse me while I spend six months away from civilization.

Square's first Final Fantasy MMORPG (the sole other being Final Fantasy XIV), Final Fantasy XI is pretty good now (or so they say). I say now because it's launch was littered with annoyances. The main reason being Hiromichi Tanaka was in charge. But since it was his first foray into the MMO genre, I'll cut him some slack.

When the game was launched in North America, we were given the availability to play with Japanese players, which was pretty cool. What wasn't cool was that they had already been playing for two years. In MMO-time, that's an insanely big time difference, and most of them had already completed all the quests while we were turning the damn thing on for the first time. They fixed it eventually though, with more servers and additional quests.

I have to praise Square Enix for this game in terms of keeping it alive and well. Every year since 2002, we've gotten updates and expansions. If there's a problem (e.g. running the PS2 version on the early PS3), they fix it. And they do it consistently. Yoichi Wada, Square Enix's president, has stated that Final Fantasy XI is the most profitable Final Fantasy game to date. So it would make sense to keep that thing running smoothly for as long as possible, and I'd say 2002-2013 is a damn good run so far. The game is also able to run cross-console, meaning you can play from any Xbox 360, PC, or PS2/3 as long as you have your info handy.

The game takes place in Vana'diel, twenty years after the Crystal War, where three nations fought a bad guy and did some stuff and blah blah blah. The world has its own mythology and history, and it's really quite expansive. It's one of the most immersive MMO worlds I've experienced, which is its greatest strength and weakness all in one.

The game is a black hole of time. It's really a job. A job you have to pay money to do, and takes up more time than an actual, real-life job. MMOs can take up an insane amount of time if you want to lose yourself, and Final Fantasy XI is no different.

You absolutely have to be playing with a party to get any real work done. Every member is a cog in the machine, and must act and react accordingly. Fighting a battle? Well, I hope you don't die, because if you do, you lose a whopping 10% of your EXP. And EXP will seem more valuable than anything in real life. The game is a constant grind, and it takes forever. Even more so than the 8-bit installments. And it's not fun in the slightest.

Scenario: You get a party together, which takes a loooong time since no one is ever in the spirit of just "helping people out" for fear of death. There has to be definitive benefits to their being in the party. Otherwise, forget it, because they're risking a lot just by going into combat. Oh, and none of your real-life friends will ever play with you. You have to schedule everything around the game's timetable since there are so many time-sensitive factors, and your individual schedules will rarely match up. So once you have a party in order (after an hour), the fun can start, right? Nope. You do the same thing a billion times in a row, following the same routine over and over and over and over again just to kill rabbits. Repeat for three hours (or three days). Then by some fluke or poor preparation, you die. And you scream yourself hoarse, shut the damn thing off, unplug it for good measure, and storm off to do something else. But later that night, you sulk back over and start playing again, feeling nothing but simmering anger. This cycle repeats an insane amount of times.

Oh, and when you died, your party would have preferred you stayed with them after being revived (sans 10% of your EXP, and also would take a half hour), but since you were so blind with rage, you didn't even think about it. It took them another forty minutes to find a replacement. The whole scenerio is very commonplace. Death in the game is roughly equivalent to death in real life. Nobody wants to sit there grinding for days on end, but there's no other way to get ahead, so everyone grumbles and mindlessly repeats the same actions day in and day out. You don't know what I mean until you experience it yourself, but trust me, you don't want to waste months of your life to know that it's not worth it. Think about how much real life sucks sometimes, then imagine you're playing a video game that does only that. How can you possibly say no?

It would be way better if everything didn't take a million years. And I mean everything. Walking to a new location, fighting a battle, waiting for shops to open, waiting for an airship in order to travel, waiting for a phase of the moon to arrive, waiting for a certain day of the week (in real time). There is a lot lot lot to do in this game, it just takes forever to do any of it. And it's not fun. I don't even know why I played it for as long as I did, even though I said repeatedly to myself, "THIS IS NOT FUN AND I DO NOT WANT TO BE DOING IT ANYMORE." It becomes an addiction, and even after you realize you are not having any fun whatsoever, for some reason you still play it. A lot. Why? I don't know why. The same reason people do heavy drugs even though they know it's not a good idea and they'll probably die. The game is another life. Another life you have to live while sacrificing your actual life. So many hours of playtime I will never get back, and will regret it for the rest of my life. Square Enix has created this virtual drug that is ruining people's real lives.

I can't really summarize the whole experience and mindset of this game exactly. Just thinking about it is getting me all worked up. Awesome things like the fact that Final Fantasy XI is very closely related to Final Fantasy III (which is a cool concept even if I didn't really like III all that much), or that the world is huge with a million things to do mean nothing if the game is too much to bear by itself. I gave Final Fantasy XI a good chance, but I'm not a huge MMO person. Maybe that's the problem. I guess there are over a million people who would disagree with me. Or maybe they're just too far gone to ever come back. Who knows? I just hope Final Fantasy XIV is an improvement in terms of enjoying the game.

February 17, 2013

Final Fantasy Order - #13

13. Final Fantasy II (Famicom - 1988)


Final Fantasy II separates itself from the first installment mostly by giving it actual storytelling with drama and stuff. The story is pretty intriguing and keeps your attention, despite the gameplay (explained later). Character are developed (and have actual names!), there's romance, betrayal, twists, and (permanent) death. It's a huge step up from the first game in terms of narrative.

Unfortunately, this is one of the few things I can praise it for. The standard experience system was scrapped for a different version of leveling, which is somewhat confusing to the first-time player. Actually, I've played through the game and still don't fully understand it. While I can appreciate the developers trying something new, they still left a bunch of loopholes in the system that allow extreme abuse. Instead of:

Battle Won!
Experience Gained!
Level Up!
Stats Increased!

It's more like:

Battle Won!
You used White Magic, so Spirit Stat levels up!
You used a lot of Physical Attacks, so Attack Stat levels up!
You used a Sword a lot, so Sword ability levels up!
You took a lot of damage, so Max HP levels up!
You used Fire Magic a lot, so Fire Magic levels up!
You used Magic, so Max MP levels up!

So basically, the equipment/abilities you favor level up and shape your characters in a unique and specific way. On paper, it sounds pretty neat. However, in-game it failed miserably. Most players quickly figured out they could get into a battle with weak enemies and beat down their own party to skyrocket stats. You are also able to lose stats if you're not paying attention to what you're doing (e.g. You used a lot of Magic, so Physical Stats level down!). In addition, characters seem to level up/down without any rhyme or reason. And there's no guarantee you'll gain any stats at all, regardless of your performance in battle. The system is not implemented well whatsoever. The culmination of this failure rears its ugly head at many points in the game. My favorite being that you can reach the last boss, but be unable to win because you fought too many battles. Your stats are skewed so that statistically, it is impossible to win. You must a) start the entire game over again, b) grind endlessly to de-level and re-level your characters the "right way," or c) chuck that cartridge into the nearest fireplace and weep for time lost.

The main reason this game is so incredibly different from the first installment (not to mention nearly all the later ones) is a man named Akitoshi Kawazu. A designer who joined Square in 1985, his distinct style permeates this entire game. He revels in defying standard RPG conventions, which could be an excellent trait if executed correctly. However, his justifications are odd to say the least, and his unmistakable style is something to actually avoid. When asked why Final Fantasy III goes back to the more "traditional" gameplay, Kawazu had this to say:

"I don't know that much about Final Fantasy III because at that point, I wasn't really involved. Final Fantasy II was basically my system, and it's an eclectic kind of system. Eclecitic because I made it, you know? There was nobody else I could hand the torch off to afterwards, because there was nobody else who could fathom it. That's why it changed."

Wow. So in addition to having an ego the size of a continent, he justifies his actions pretty much the same way all crazy people do. I will point out that Square kept Kawazu away from core Final Fantasy titles for over fifteen years. Because he was too good, you guys.

Hironobu Sakaguchi, the main person responsible for the core of most Final Fantasy games (including this one), creates games to take the player to a world where they can explore and have fun, while at the same time becoming emotionally attached to the characters and story. Kawazu, on the other hand, wants games to feel like work. You're not having fun unless you're frantically working towards an impossible goal, while getting screwed right and left along the way! He seems to mess with the gameplay for the sole purpose of messing with the gameplay, not thinking (nor caring) about who is going to be affected down the road. I'm pretty sure George Lucas had a pretty similar mentality when the Special Editions were created.

Example: Sakaguchi inserts a story event where a character dies (permanently). The player feels for this character since they went through a lot of big events and character development with the party, so the death has an impact. Kawazu, smirking in the background the whole time, ruins the entire moment by making it so that after the character dies, you cannot retrieve their items or equipment. It's gone forever. You just equipped them with outrageously expensive or entirely unique items? Haha, that stinks! Aren't you having fun? Now your whole party is at a crippling disadvantage! This kind of crap happens constantly throughout the entire game, never giving you a chance to catch your breath between blows.

Kawazu was designing this game as a living thing. You're going to try and beat Final Fantasy II? Well, Final Fantasy II is going to try and beat you! You think you've got a system figured out? Well, here's some irrationality to make it impossible to predict! It's a purely psychological battle. I'm trying to enjoy this game, but the game is doing everything in its power to prevent me from doing so.

"If you're not feeling pain, you're not having fun!"

I'm not saying Kawazu is an idiot, he's incredibly intelligent, and arguably way ahead of his time. But he approaches game design solely as a math problem: stats, figures, and probability. His obsession for constant innovation is admirable (and a trait we need developers to have today), except he takes it in the opposite direction of where it should go. It's still incredible to me that he and Sakaguchi worked on a game together when their outlooks, styles, and goals could not be more different.

While the plot points feel much like the first Final Fantasy ("get this" in order to "do that"), the fact that there's an actual interweaving story with named characters and scripted event make the whole thing meld together much better. It's also notable that the narrative was developed first, before anything else was created. It's too bad the actually gameplay throws it all down the drain. My favorite part of the story is near the end, when the Emperor (main villain) is killed by our heroes after desperately trying to gain control of an ancient power in order to take over the world. Hooray! But lo and behold, he's such a jerk that after going straight to hell, he grabs the ancient power anyway and zips right back as a crazy demon. He is adamant on taking over the world, so our heroes have to defeat him again. Today, this story is so boringly rehashed that it's laughable. But at the time, not so much.

Some people argue that somehow the introduction of Chocobos and Cid make the game better. I mean, now it's a wink and nudge when Cid shows up in a Final Fantasy title, but at the time it wasn't notable. Same thing with Chocobos. Now they're everywhere, but back when this game came out, nobody was like, "Oh, hell yeah! Chocobos! Kwehkwehkwehkweh! Yeahhhhhhh!!" I think it's just that some people desperately want this game to be good just because it has a "Final Fantasy" sticker slapped on it.

Pictured: Nothing memorable.

The (very few) good things about this game are just tiny quirks that are shoved off to the side in favor of mental violation. Things like introducing a back row in battle, being able to fight with less than four members in your party, secondary characters temporarily under your control, and a coherent engaging story. The music, composed again by Nobuo Uematsu, is pretty good. There's not a ton of variety, but that's to be expected from the hardware limitations of the time. The mood and style match the situations quite well, and the Rebel Army Theme remains one of my favorite 8-bit Final Fantasy tracks.

It's interesting to note how many mainstays of future Final Fantasy games were introduced here first, not to mention the majority of JRPGs in general. Final Fantasy II's influence stretches farther than any other game in the series. If it had actually been good and fun to play, this would definitely be highly ranked on many lists of the greatest RPGs. But in reality, it's only good on paper, which is what I think Kawazu cares about the most. We didn't get an official release in North America until 2003 on the PlayStation, but I consider that a blessing. All the re-releases (GBA, PS1, etc.) really only update the visuals and alter base difficulty. Sometimes they'll add an extra dungeon or two. None of them do anything to actually fix the major problems of the game. Sakaguchi created this game to be "emotionally experienced" by the player. Kawazu did everything in his power to prevent the player from doing so.

February 16, 2013

Final Fantasy Order - #14

Favorites from bottom to top.

Even people who don't play video games know that Final Fantasy exists. Though the series has in part turned to a money-grubbing, lazy mess, there are still (very) high points in its history.

Not that the games are bad. Quite the opposite, almost all of them are damn good and definitely worth playing. This is a list of my order worst to best, with attempted justification. I should point out that I'm only referring to the main numbered titles (I - XIV). Some of the spin-offs/sequels are brilliant in their own right (e.g. Tactics, Chocobo, etc.), but there's way too many of those to add to this list. Ports are also given lower priority, since at times they change the core gameplay drastically and create an entirely different experience (for better or worse).

14. Final Fantasy XIV (Microsoft Windows - 2010)

[UPDATE: This refers to the original release of Final Fantasy XIV, not the 2013 release Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.]

I can't even give this one a proper evaluation because the game has so many bugs and unfinished crap in it. The whole thing is unplayable (it was so bad that this past November the original game version was shut down). The low quality of this release is inexcusable, and this is one of Square Enix's top franchises. I would guess that deadlines and money had something to do with the premature release, but if it's not even done, then don't release it. It would be like buying a Mario platformer and going through a level with no enemies, or reaching World 3 when the map just cuts off, or not being able to climb a ladder because they hadn't programmed that action yet, so you're stuck. Oh well! Guess the joke's on me! No hard feelings! Yeah, right. Hopefully the "relaunch" of Final Fantasy XIV (mid-2013) will contain an actual game that people can actually play (as absurd as that sounds), but I am almost pissed off enough to not even try it. The fact that Square Enix sent out not one, but two apologies and offered a bunch of compensation goodies to people that bought the initial release says it all. I wouldn't need your damn compensation gifts if you just gave me a game that had all of its parts when I bought it. And MMOs aren't new, they aren't hard to figure out, and if you're freaking Square Enix, you can give some money to people that know what they're doing, because you're not limited by a small budget. Plus, Final Fantasy XI (also an MMORPG that you made) came out over five years prior to this. Even though that game also had some rocky development, it's come a long way. So that means you have over half a decade of facts, figures, data, and details to work from, plus the years of development experience. Final Fantasy XI is also the most profitable Final Fantasy ever. Why on earth would you not want to do everything in your power for a repeat performance? There is no excuse for XIV's failure.

Naoki Yoshida, the game's current director and producer, has stated that he feels another mistake like Final Fantasy XIV would end up destroying Square Enix, and I agree. When one of (if not the) flagship title of your company is so incredibly mishandled and thrown out like yesterday's trash, your entire reputation is irreversibly damaged. I should point out that I said Yoshida is the game's current producer, because from day one to the initial release it was Hiromichi Tanaka. After the disaster of XIV's release, he left the company due to "health reasons". Yeah, XIV sucked so bad it made me sick too. Tanaka was also responsible for Final Fantasy XI, the only other MMO in the series. The initial bumbling and "unanticipated difficulties" of that game's release should have sent up a million red flags for the rest of the higher-ups at the company. HEY, THIS GUY IS DOING ANOTHER FINAL FANTASY MMORPG AND IS IN THE SAME POSITION AS LAST TIME. DIDN'T SOMETHING SCREWY HAPPEN LAST TIME? WHATEVER, LET'S JUST PUSH THE PROJECT FORWARD WITHOUT THINKING ABOUT IT. I'm not saying Tanaka sucked at his entire job, but in terms of certain aspects, absolutely. How hard would it be to say, "Okay, you've done a great job creating and bringing about this whole game, Tanaka, and it's pretty slick. Now I'm going to give it to another person (or persons) who are capable to look it over, and they'll launch it without a hitch."

The so-called "relaunch" of Final Fantasy XIV will have a new server system, graphics engine, server and data structures, revamped interface, redesigning of all maps, a new interface, new playable characters, a reworked job system, more gameplay variations (1v1 and large scale player versus player), and additional story content. So basically, it will be a completely different and entirely new game. I find it hilarious that the explanation for the "radical alterations in game areas" is due to Dalamud, a giant meteor that was summoned and slammed into the planet. The whole game sucked so bad that they literally created something to demolish it in the game itself.

"Okay, so our story is that a meteor came and basically destroyed the planet. That's why it looks so different."
"Okay, just give me until tomorrow, and I'll have it done."
"What? Oh, we don't actually have to do it, we can just say that's what happened."
"You know what? I've worked on this piece of crap for over three years of my life, and what do I have to show for it? This games sucks. I want to destroy it. I am going to create a meteor, I am going to watch it plow into the world, and I am going to savor the moment for the rest of my life."
"You know we're shutting down this version next week, right? So no one will see it anyway?"


How many countless man-hours and funds went into this piece of junk? Large-scale, high-quality, big-publisher AAA game development is astoundingly expensive, so why wouldn't you want to make sure that every single cent went towards making it as good as it can be? And now you're not doing it just once. Since you screwed up so bad, you have to do it again. Which means you have to spend almost double the initial amount of money and time to create this thing. And everybody is watching ever so closely, waiting for you to screw up again. Instead of waiting in anticipation to see how awesome this game will be, some people are now waiting in anticipation to see how many things they can find that are still wrong. What a successful marketing technique, Square Enix. Thankfully, Yoshida has created the Final Fantasy XIV forums, where users can give ideas, feedback, suggestions, and the like. This is a good move. But why should the fans have to pick up the slack where the company screwed up in the first place? If these forums were around at the beginning of the development, it wouldn't seem like such a plea, problems could be addressed as they came up, and the initial release would not have been such a nightmare. It wasn't that big of a surprise to the public that the initial release would be a disaster anyway. Many top-notch sources raised their eyebrows at the game's announced release date, because they had seen or heard things firsthand that showed that no, the game should not be released because it's not done.

And it's freaking Final Fantasy! Other games would give all of their pieces/parts to be regarded half as highly as this series. It's going to be near impossible to not compare the relaunch to the original piece of garbage. I'm sure I'll think, "Why couldn't they just do that in the first place?" six million times in the first week of playing (if that even happens), and just get super pissed all over again. So thank you, Square Enix, for spitting in our collective face.

The only good thing about this game is Nobuo Uematsu came back and did all the music himself, which hasn't happened since Final Fantasy IX. But since this is post-IX Uematsu, I'm not falling out of my chair in awe. And anyway, for the relaunch more people are coming on board, so the soundtrack will be quite different from the initial product. Hooray.

I feel bad for Yoshida, I really do. And through all this crap, he's managed to do a lot of great things for the relaunch (titled Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn). Yoichi Wada, president of Square Enix, personally picked Yoshida to run the relaunch because he knew Yoshida is "a hardcore MMORPG player and has a vast amount of experience and knowledge in the genre." Um, hello? Wouldn't it have made sense to make a decision like that from square one, before the entire project was botched? Yoshida also provides consistent updates on the progress of the game, so things aren't as hidden to players anymore. I applaud him for this. His current success in designing Dragon Quest X (also an MMORPG) is also a reassuring sign.

But the fact remains that he's part of the bigger picture that is Square Enix, and Square Enix dropped the ball. Then the ball broke. Then we stepped on the pieces and cut up our feet. Then our feet got infected. Then they amputated them, and now we're waiting for our new, improved feet to arrive in the mail. They keep telling us that they're way better and worth the wait, but we're concerned nonetheless.

The immense failure of this game doesn't just fall on one person, even though one person might take the blame. Everything had to be pushed past multiple, highly regarded professionals during the entire game's development for five years. And for whatever reason, from 2005 all the way to 2010, no one stood up and said, "Um, this thing is going to suck. We need to stop now and rethink how we're doing this." So the blame falls on all of them. What a disaster.

February 9, 2013

Showcase Presents: Martian Manhunter Vol. 1

Great suns! Continuity! The enemy of all Martians!

This volume was pretty ridiculous. In a good way. In a hilariously good way. The stories are very short, most are only 5-6 pages, as they were a tiny feature in Detective Comics at the time. Unfortunately, this means there are no covers, and very rarely even a splash page as an introduction, since every inch of space needed to be used for the core story. But there's nothing wrong with short stories. On the contrary, when I only had a minute or two of free time, I could get through one without having to worry about multiple parts or super intricate plots. It was pretty cut-and-dried. This doesn't mean there isn't a ton of laugh-out-loud moments of ridiculousness. They pop up almost every issue. And there's a lot of them. This book is the character's run from November 1955 to June 1962, Detective Comics 225-304. All of the stories (save the very first one from 1953) are attributed to Jack Miller. He seems to have a lot of fun writing for the character, and it's one of the most entertaining Silver Age volumes I've read so far. Joe Certa is attributed to providing all the art, and his fairly dynamic presentation complements the writing very well. I imagine translating the writing into a visual must have proven perplexing at times, considering what actions Miller has the Martian Manhunter perform. I also imagine both of them had a lot of laughs working on this project.

The very first story, interestingly, is from a Batman comic from 1953. A Martian criminal flees to Earth, and an officer of the law is sent after him. Upon landing and being discovered by Batman and Robin, the lawman states he is lightheaded. Batman, scientific wiz that he is, tells him it's because Earth's atmosphere has way more oxygen than Mars, and instructs him to simply, "Breathe lightly till you gets used to it!" Glad you're around, Batman.

I should add the criminal flees to Earth because, "It is the only planet with an atmosphere similar to Mars!" The integration of statements like these is absurd, especially when the writers seem to try their best to include actual scientific facts. Long story short, the criminal is captured and the lawman goes back to Mars. This story is considered the 'harbinger' of the Martian Manhunter, but I really can't see any connection other than a dude came over from Mars. Coupled with how big science fiction stories were at the time and the fact that it predates the Detective Comic stories by years, it makes the case even weaker. Plus, his appearance is a regular white guy in a retro sci-fi costume with a ray gun, not the green martian we all think of today.

In his first 'real' story, the Manhunter is transported to Earth by Dr. Erdel, who uses his 'Robot Brain' to probe space, time, and the FOURTH DIMENSIONNNN. He pushes a button to see what it will do (which he should know since he built it?), and it instantly transports Martian J'onn J'onzz right into his lab. J'onn then changes his appearance to an Earthling in order to avoid causing shock. Having the total opposite effect, this change causes Dr. Erdel to suffer a massive heart attack and die. Since the doctor is the only one who can operate the Robot Brain, J'onn is effectively stranded. I do enjoy this aspect of J'onn's background, except for the fact that there is no reason at all for him to be stranded for more than a few hours (as will be explained).

Side note: Why does Dr. Erdel, who has the mental capacity and skill to construct this 'Robot Brain' completely by himself, and who also knows that it can somehow probe spacetime, die of shock as soon as something happens? It doesn't seem like he should be too surprised about anything at that point. It should also be noted that over the course of this volume, other scientists fix the Robot Brain (multiple times), as well as everyday thugs and J'onn himself, yet he never goes back to Mars at any of these occasions due to circumstances of the situation.

He also states that his people can't come get him because they haven't created a ship that can carry them to other worlds. It might take them hundreds of years, even. Yet countless times, ships from all over the place (e.g. Mars, Jupiter, Venus) land on Earth, complete with aliens inside. Beings are also transported instantaneously to Earth through various means (sometimes even by accident), not even requiring a vehicle. J'onn even manages to contact his family back on Mars via video screen (somehow), so they know exactly where and how far away he is, but never just hop in or send a ship to go get him.

Early on, J'onn states that Mars had eliminated the strange Earth custom known as 'crime' centuries ago with their 'Enlightened Science', which I would love to witness firsthand. This statement is also complete crap, as a myriad of criminals from Mars all flee and come straight to Earth. I guess it must be the similar atmosphere. While he's waiting for rescue, J'onn takes the opportunity to help out Earthlings by becoming a police detective in his human form. I should point out that it isn't shown exactly how he becomes a detective, the police captain merely states, "You've qualified to become a detective! You'll be on the force tomorrow!" Just like that. This in itself is a marvel, since he has absolutely no form of identification. No social security number, no driver's license, no birth certificate, no passport, no immigration documents, no work history, no references, no anything. But Captain Harding states that, "He has qualified." What kind of qualification test could possibly have been given in such a short time with such gratifying results?

And his powers. Holy crap, his powers. Countless abilities are introduced, then lost, forgotten about, or just not used anymore. We're talking invisibility, the ability to extract gold from the ocean (he needed money to survive on Earth, obviously), telekinesis, walking through solid objects, bending light rays, reading minds, seeing the goddamn future, breathing underwater, seeing through solid objects, super strength, heat vision, super hearing, super breath, changing his physical appearance, nullifying Earth's gravity in a localized field, flight, instantly growing facial hair, magnetizing objects, teleportation, being near invulnerable, creating mirages/illusions, super speed, and others. It is also unclear what restrictions his powers have. At first, he must be invisible to use his powers, then he states that it doesn't matter and he can do it either way, then he states that he is unable to use his powers while invisible. It's really whatever fits the bill at that point.

He also blatantly uses his powers in front of everyone. Other officers at the precinct, regular citizens, criminals he's apprehending, anybody. His biggest fear is his true identity being revealed. This is again, ridiculous, since as soon as he brings criminals in they immediately claim he is an alien since he used his powers right in front of them in order to make the capture. Every single time the lawmen laugh and kick the criminal(s) off to jail, because how could a criminal possibly tell the truth about anything? J'onn also almost always makes some sort of smug statement about 'not having revealed his true powers', usually right after doing so. When he appears suddenly in the middle of a crowd, people stare with wide eyes and gaping mouths and usually say something like, "Where in the world did he come from?" and then just keep on walking and get on with their daily business. When he walks through a wall into a gang's hideout, they all shoot at him out of what I'm guessing is blind terror. Of course the bullets go right through him, and the next panel is of J'onn turning the criminals in and making some cocky remark about how he, "Probably just got lucky this time!"

His only weakness? Fire. Any kind of fire. A match, a cigarette, a flamethrower, you name it. At one (hilarious) point, he even stumbles and nearly faints when someone on the other side of a door is audibly fired from their job. Needless to say, nearly every case he is assigned to involves fire on some level. From being a stuntman in a movie to shoveling coal into a furnace, there's fire everywhere. And apparently on Mars they don't even have fire, because when J'onn gets back there (temporarily), five Earthlings have conquered the entire planet with a book of freaking matches, and nobody knows what to do, so they submit to their 'Earthling Masters'. So how does J'onn know a) what it's called, and b) that he should be afraid of it? So many questions, Manhunter. It should be noted that fire doesn't seem to harm him, it only makes him lose his superpowers, so as soon as he walks away (or sometimes simply avoids looking at the flames), he becomes super again. The Martians are also repeatedly noted as 'the leading race in the universe'. I suppose an additional weakness would be anyone with a speck of logic or intelligence, but thankfully there don't seem to be any of those on Earth (or anywhere else, for that matter).

There is also a notable lack of supervillains in this volume. The only non-regular foes he faces are other aliens. The craziest things on Earth he faces are magic (which usually turns out to be fake), and criminals with insanely weird scientific inventions. The rest of the time, it's just commonplace thugs, so his powers really aren't necessary for stopping most of them, but he heavily relies on them to get the job done. Of course, most of the crooks are always SMOKING! Which means J'onn becomes as helpless as an infant and only wins by sheer luck most of the time.

There are instances, of course, where J'onn loses his powers for whatever reason (a special comet flying by, position of the moon, a meteor falling in the middle of the city, spoiled milk, etc.). It is always only temporary, and things work out for J'onn in the end, but he is the most pathetic example of a regular human being. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern were infinitely more effective in Home Alone than J'onn without his powers (and they got their ass kicked by a ten-year-old). J'onn can't even walk without tripping over his own feet. For some reason, he also loses his vulnerability fire at these points. In addition, it is shown that on Mars, the inhabitants have no superpowers due to the planet's atmosphere. This implies that the entire planet must be people constantly dying from falling out of windows, drowning in puddles, and starving because they can't figure out how the food is supposed to get inside of them. "We Martians are the leading race in the universe!"

For all its logic faults, I highly recommend giving this a read. I had a smile on my face for almost every story, just because they are so entertaining. You'll know if it's something you'd be interested in within the first five stories, and if you do like them, there are more than 80 in this book alone. I haven't started Volume 2 yet, but I am looking forward to it very much. Even though it takes Miller a while to let the character find his feet, it's worth it all the way. Covering all the hilarity in this book would take up way too much time, so you should just check it out yourself.