Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Power Of Melancholy In Video Games

I've always found "melancholy" to be an interesting feeling, emotion, whatever it is. As someone who suffers from terrible biological depression, I can of course relate to it greatly, and tend to find myself latching onto moments where it's represented in fiction with an odd mix of lament and adoration. As sad as the emotion is, it also has a certain subdued appeal to it, like an empty street on a crisp fall afternoon, after most of the leaves have fallen off. There's something oddly alluring about the deadly silence of the wind, the complete vacancy of other humans, the chill weather. Sadness, loneliness, and even a sense of foreboding accompany something that is, beneath its more painful exterior, quite beautiful.

The confines of Shadow Moses Island in Metal Gear Solid were certainly melancholic.

I think the feeling shows up in games quite often. I have about ten scenarios floating around in my head right now that represent this emotion fairly well, but if I were to name them all, we'd be here all day. I think one of its best representations in gaming also happens to be one of my favorite pieces of music, one I first heard before I began to suffer from depression, one that I've seen from outside the darkened box that's been placed over my head.

Maybe it's because I first heard it when I was still in a world filled with more light, and can now also feel a certain kinship with what it represents, that it appeals to me so greatly. It represents to me how different it is to experience misery from the inside, which is infinitely more transformative, perhaps even enlightening, than seeing it from a distance. But I'm digressing a little.

Hope Beneath Despair

Anxious Heart - Final Fantasy VII

This music plays in the Midgar Slums, a place of poverty and oppression. It also plays in the Train Graveyard.

I think what's so particularly appealing about the feeling of melancholy in Anxious Heart, which is conveyed masterfully through NPC dialogue throughout the game's Midgar chapter, is that Midgar's citizens haven't given up hope. You feel their despair, their fear, their anger at living beneath the upper crust of society and being bled dry by Shinra. But when you speak to these NPCs, none of them think it's "ok" to live like that. They all want out, they all want to see Shinra fall, they all want a better life. There's a sense of hope and a fighting spirit beneath all of these destitute people, even if, deep inside, they know they probably won't ever get out of the position they're in.

It's symbolic of the power of the human spirit and the evils of poverty, and very close to how people react to living in severe hardship. Nobody ever truly accepts it as their lot in life. Everyone thinks "someday, things will be better." Even if the odds are low or nonexistent, people's hearts keep longing for the good.

In a way, through the litter and grime and ramshackle housing and unfair dichotomy between rich and poor, the good things in life are made infinitely more powerful. The poor realize how much they need them, how their lives feel distinctly wrong without them. Reality ceases to matter. The human longing for goodness takes precedence, even if they do acknowledge the "real world" around them. It never leaves, and even finds new places to grow. People begin to find value in tiny, seemingly insignificant things.

Midgar's melancholy is both devastating and beautiful. It's a work of art. Anxious Heart is the perfect representation of the mood and tone it attempts to convey.

We can only hope the remake does this feeling justice.

A Sacred Death

Another game that I feel embodies this almost paradoxical emotion is Valkyrie Profile.

Valkyrie Profile's melancholy runs deeper than Final Fantasy VII's. This is because it's on a cosmic scale from the very beginning. Even the player, as Lenneth, a literal goddess, isn't capable of solving people's earthly woes.

The fact that the premise of the game is that she's there to recruit the souls of the departed for an army in a heavenly war is even more depressing, adding another layer of tragedy to the unceremonious deaths of the recently departed recruits, who are posthumously dubbed as Lenneth's "einherjar."

All of Lenneth's einherjar have a story to be told. Every single one ends in their demise.

This is a term taken from Norse mythology that has connotations of a heavenly warrior. The einherjar in Valkyrie Profile were, unlike most other video games, usually nobody special before their deaths. At most, they were an ordinary samurai or a soldier, but never a powerful hero or otherwise emotionally or physically exceptional person. Their deaths are usually tragic, unwarranted, unfair, and too sudden.

Perhaps an afterlife of more fighting was paradise for the vikings, but for ordinary people, more conflict is hardly what these people wanted or deserved.

As if they didn't have enough problems in life. 
The juxtaposition between human lives and the heavenly conflict of the gods, as well as the very earthly struggles of the einherjar's stories in comparison to the fantastical monster hunting, dungeon delving, and fighting more typical of a fantasy RPG, helps to sell the player on the fact that death has allowed these people to transcend to a new life. It's more glorious, for sure... but at what cost?

Somber Sounds

Composer Motoi Sakuraba's music had a fantastical, dreamlike quality to it throughout this particular era of gaming, but his work for Valkyrie Profile had an underlying sense of despair that made it stand out even among his other excellent compositions of the '90s.

Epic Poem to a Sacred Death, which plays during the game's opening, has a heavenly choir that dips into low, somber notes that reflect a sense of impending tragedy. Doorway to Heaven, while heroic and uplifting, still has distant, somber flutes and what sounds like a choir of lamenting angels scattered throughout. All Is Twilight probably represents the melancholy tone of the game best, at least for met's so unapologetically bleak, and usually plays in town or village scenes before a character's inevitable death. The whole soundtrack is layered with this feeling.

The game's washed out, teal/grey look also helps. The towns and dungeons are equally dark and dismal.

Something unique about Valkyrie Profile's melancholy is that it isn't oppressive, like Berserk or Dark Souls. It's more passive; the world is slowly dying, people aren't aware of their misery or fate or what's going on in their world, and most certainly not in the world of the gods. Situating the player as Lenneth, who does know these things, makes the scenario even more tragic.

Unlike Final Fantasy VII, which compartmentalizes the feeling, melancholy pervades and defines the entire game, from beginning to end.

Maybe I'm weird for liking this about games. But these two titles hold a special place in my heart, and it is precisely because they succeed in portraying overwhelmingly beautiful sadness.

'Metal Gear Solid 4': Black Sheep, Great Game

This article was originally written on the 9th anniversary of the Metal Gear series.

At the advent of E3's Sony Conference, I'd like to take a moment to remember the last chronological entry in one of the former flagship franchises of the console. It's fitting, then, that today would be its 9th anniversary. Metal Gear Solid 4 was the hotly anticipated sequel to Metal Gear Solid 3, and one of the first killer pieces of exclusive software for the system. To this day, it remains exclusive to the Playstation 3.

No Place to Hide

I remember the launch of this game very well. I had watched and latched onto every trailer with reckless abandon. I had re-watched them over and over, scoured over every released piece of news like a hyena scrounging for food. I did this with the previous games, too, but this was different. After the third game ended up being an unexpected prequel, this promised to continue the story after the massive cliffhanger of the second game.

It threw us the massive curveball of an older Snake, something hinted at in the earlier games, but something that we would never in a million years expect to play. Liquid was front and center again, Vamp was confirmed to be alive, Raiden was back (and oh boy, was he back), and characters from all three previous games in the series promised to make a return and play a large part in the story. To top it off, the game took place in the Middle East - the perfect setting for a game loaded with political commentary about war - with a promise for more locations and a dynamic battlefield. It was, in every way, the ultimate promise for MGS fans.

The hype was fanned even further when Hideo Kojima, the director of the first three entries, was confirmed to be returning to finish off the series. Until this announcement, he had publicly declared that he would not play a hand in this title. With the big cheese himself involved, people's fears that this wouldn't be an authentic Metal Gear experience were alleviated.

This is from a 2005 trailer. In 2005, we were playing Doom 3, FEAR, and Resident Evil 4. The game was not only a promise to MGS fans, but also a promise for the capabilities of the upcoming next gen systems.
I bought the Metal Gear Solid collection at Gamestop in the months leading up to release. I was a freshman in college at the time, and I remember coming home and being super excited to play the games with my kid brother, who was playing them for the first time. We marathoned them all, finishing Metal Gear Solid 3 right before release. We were ready.

So, did the game deliver?

War Has Changed

First playthrough: Shell shock. The game was so far off from what I expected in so many ways. The flaws of the third and fifth acts lingered on my mind, but the sheer novelty of the game eclipsed them.

Playing as a grizzled older version of Solid Snake, and traversing through exotic locales in dynamic battlefields, was an experience I'll never forget.
What impressed me:

  • The active battlefields in acts 1 and 2, allowing the player to influence wars between PMCs.
  • The different approach and amazing aesthetic of Eastern Europe.
  • The hauntingly weird B&B Unit, with nods to each of the rogue galleries of the previous entries.
  • The unexpected return to Shadow Moses.
  • The dramatic microwave hallway scene.
  • The final battle, a cinematic fistfight between the two most important and longstanding characters in the franchise, complete with a massive plot twist and appropriately nostalgic music.
  • The complete participation of the previous casts, from Rose to Mei Ling to Naomi to Raiden.
  • I remember thinking that it was unlike any game I had played before. It still is. It also looked absolutely amazing for the time. Even though less so today, it still does.

Snake and Ocelot have technically been in every game in the series in some form. Watching the two face off, with nods to each previous entry, was an extremely effective ending to a fantastic series.

On subsequent playthroughs, the flaws began to show themselves.

  • Only the first two acts really delivered on the gameplay front. Eastern Europe, while aesthetically beautiful and unique, featured some rather clunky and boring stealth sections, and was largely devoid of the engaging combat and more active stealth mechanics that the game had to offer. Shadow Moses was bereft of any human enemies. The fifth act was largely story oriented.
  • Some very important things happen off screen, mostly concerning Raiden. Raiden's visit to Dr. Madnar was a fun nod to the older MSX games (Dr. Madnar was a supporting character in Metal Gear 2), but it was also a cruel tease, as we never saw the visit itself.
  • Johnny and Meryl's romance is goofy in a bad way.
  • Long install times that upset the pacing of the game.
  • Cutscenes that go on forever.
  • Very few codec contacts in comparison to the last few games.
  • A wonky ending.

Meryl and Johnny, while fine on their own, may be the worst, most left field couple in video games.

Still, though, I loved it and played through it many more times. The good hadn't disappeared, even though I was viewing the game through a more sober lens. Despite my complaint about codec contacts above, the game absolutely delivered on one front: the buddy cop relationship between Snake and Otacon.

Otacon is really the only primary codec partner you have throughout the game, and, while this is disappointing in a way compared to the well rounded and colorful codec teams of the past, it was also a nice return to the closer relationship displayed between the two in the intro to Metal Gear Solid 2.

Snake and Otacon working covertly to disrupt world affairs has a much different vibe to it than a man on an officially sanctioned mission, so it was a bit refreshing to see this unique atmosphere return, especially since we spent comparatively little time with the two of them in the second game.

Snake and Otacon working together to take down Metal Gear RAY in the opening to the second game.

Old friends reminiscing about past missions. A nice return to an old dynamic.

I'm No Hero. Never Was. Never Will Be.

It's a shame that this gem is still stuck on PS3. I would absolutely love to revisit this game on PS4. It's not my favorite game in the series. In fact, it's probably my fourth favorite (fitting, I guess) out of the five mainline entries.

But it's still one of the best experiences in gaming for me. It holds such a special place in my heart. I'll always remember how excited I was to come home from my night classes and play through it with my kid brother. That excitement carried over through the entire playthrough. The game is synonymous with a certain period of my life, and carries with it very fond memories. It felt like the end to a bizarrely unique, yet endearingly heroic odyssey. Despite Snake's claim that he'll never be a hero, his journey certainly resonated with me.

Art depicting Old Snake after the end of the game. Source: Jedi-Art-Trick on Deviantart.

'Zelda II: Adventure of Link' Nailed Its Dark And Foreboding Atmosphere

There's not one Zelda game I actively dislike, but Zelda II has always been lower on my list of games - mostly because I've never been able to properly get into it. I've seen others beat it, but never had the patience to do it myself. One thing I've always loved about it, though, is its atmosphere.

Living Up To Its Name

Hyrule is much larger than it is in most Zelda games - the entire first game takes place south of Death Mountain, which is a tiny patch of land compared to the explorable Hyrule in this game. The sense of scope and scale makes the game feel like a grand adventure. Now that Breath of the Wild is out, Zelda II is no longer the reigning champion of having the biggest Hyrule to explore, but it was, for quite some time, what I believe the best embodiment of a true adventure in a Zelda title.

Breath of the Wild players might be interested in comparing the northeast part of this map to that of the newest Zelda title.
There is a sense of distant oppression throughout the game that is markedly different from the looming threat of Ganon, Zant, Vaati, Demise, or any of the other Zelda villains. There's no villain sitting atop his throne and threatening the world, because Link already defeated him at the end of the first game. Zelda isn't kidnapped, but safe (albeit cursed into a long sleep).

Instead, there's the threat of Ganon's resurrection should you fail your journey. His minions need the hero's blood to revive him, and they're ready to kill you for it. Men turn into bats that fly away in towns while saying that the eyes of Ganon are everywhere. He feels like a supernatural threat in this game more than a real, physical one - and his presence is an ultimatum, giving the player a sense of "finish your quest, or else." The game delivers on this threat with every game over screen, as well.

Hyrule, at this point, is also very sparsely populated and has fallen into disrepair. You can partially chalk this up to the original art style being very different, and the limitations of the NES. However, Nintendo seems to have run with this idea, and described the end of this now-Fallen Hero timeline as an era of relative struggle for the kingdom. Just look at the box art, which shows an orange sky, a dead tree, and barren plains behind our hero.

Katsuya Terada was a concept artist for the classic Zelda games, and his art helps convey the atmosphere the developers were going for. Terada's art for the game is much darker than usual for Zelda, evoking a western fantasy feel as compared to the fairy tale feel of most Zelda games, and has always been how I imagined Link's adventure were it made without the limitations of the NES. I highly recommend a quick Google search of the rest of his work, as it's really the best realization of Zelda in art form that I can think of.

Link fights a Cyclops.

Link fights the penultimate boss of the game, The Thunderbird.

Darkness Over Hyrule

Nic Rowen over at Destructoid wrote a fantastic article on the legacy of Zelda II:

Among its contemporaries, only Metroid matches Zelda II’s dark sense of mood. I can’t think of any other first-party Nintendo games that use so much black. Black title screens, black menus, black stages. Darkness looms over both games in a way I can’t imagine Nintendo giving its blessing to now. Hyrule has been a colorful world for decades, filled with plump little chickens to bully and goofy townsfolk with cartoon eyebrows. Metroid is still dark, but dark in the way a modern sci-fi movie is dark, all nebulas and gases, greens, purples, and blues.

- Nic Rowen, Destructoid

He's absolutely right. There's a lot of black and subdued colors throughout the game, leaving you with the impression that Hyrule is - at the moment - a pretty scary and oppressive place to be.

The crushing difficulty helps add to the game's oppressive feel. As the player, you always feel like Link is in danger, and the unforgiving respawn point - which is the very beginning of the game - only exacerbates this feeling.

Unlike Majora's Mask or Twilight Princess, which are more upfront about their relative darkness, Adventure of Link approaches it in a more subdued and natural manner. A lot of this has to do with the minimal storytelling in games at the time, but it still reigns true. Hyrule's struggles are inferred rather than told to you. The oppressive atmosphere is one that lurks beneath the surface, like a thought nagging at the back of your mind.

It's true that Majora's Mask is similar in how it offers an ultimatum to the player - "finish your quest or else" - but the darkness of Majora is a bit different. It's more "twisted" than "dark," if that makes sense - more Silent Hill than Resident Evil (although neither comparison is accurate for any Zelda game, I hope the extreme comparisons to horror help to get my point across). Twilight Princess feels like it wants you to know the game is dark and gritty, reminding you at every opportunity that this is "a more realistic Zelda." Zelda II does darkness more organically, and I love it for it.

The Reigning King

Breath of the Wild has only been out for a short time, but its likewise desperate and disparate version of Hyrule has it setting its sights on my personal #1 spot for "Best atmosphere in a Zelda game." As it stands, it has some fierce competition, and that competition comes from one of the oldest games in the series. I haven't made a final decision yet, but the bright colors of Breath of the Wild have me still edging towards Zelda II as atmospherically superior - if only by a very slight margin.

Work in Progress

In the process of moving a bunch of articles over to this blog. Formatting is proving to be an issue - the Suikoden and Ivalice articles are a mess right now - but I'll get everything cleaned up... in time. For now, I just need to get everything over here. Enjoy, if you're one of the two people who read this.

'Mega Man ZX' Retrospective: Overlooked, Unfinished, And Forgotten

The Mega Man ZX series seems to be a largely forgotten set of Mega Man games, rarely mentioned among the remaining fandom these days, and almost completely overlooked by casual fans of the series.

I recently replayed both games, so I was able to look at them from a modern perspective. Do they hold up to how enjoyable they were back at the tail end of the 2000's? For the most part, they absolutely do!

One Mega Man...And One Mega Woman

While previous Mega Man games have let you choose a character in the beginning, ZX does it a bit differently by allowing you to choose the character's gender. It's left ambiguous as to whether or not both characters exist from an in-universe perspective, but they play mostly identically to one another and share striking visual similarities, to the point where it seems like they were designed to exist separately from one another.

This time I decided to play as Aile, the female lead, on normal. I beat it on easy as Vent the first time I played through, so now I have the added perspective of having played through both stories.

The first thing I noticed is that Aile's story seems to have more substance to it - you get extra tidbits about the murder of Aile's mother, the main villain Serpent's relation with The Guardians (the unit you end up working for) and the antagonistic Model W, and the reason her mentor Giro has his biometal changes. In Aile's game, he's always had it, whereas in Vent's game, he picks his up at the same time Vent does. This changes his character pretty significantly.

Giro, Vent or Aile's mentor, depending on who you choose.

In Vent's game, Giro seemed to have a buddy cop relationship with Vent, while in Aile's game, he seems to play a more prominent guardian figure role. It's interesting how that works out, because Zero, the mentor figure from the Mega Man X series and very much Giro's equivalent in said series, filled both of these roles towards Mega Man X at different points in the series.

Vent, however, had at least one thing going for him over Aile - I much prefer Vent's voice for gameplay reasons. Aile's high pitched voice gets a little annoying after hearing it again and again throughout the game. The game only offers Japanese voice acting, and if you have any familiarity with the Japanese voice industry, you'll know that the pitch of some voices can get unbearably high at times. That is very much the case here.

Aile's personality is also portrayed differently from Vent's - Vent is very much a "nice guy" protagonist. He's your typical Saturday morning cartoon hero with a shred of self-doubt. Aile is much more forward, even snarky at times, and has more confidence in how she presents herself. While the changes in dialogue are minor, each character certainly adds their own unique flavor to the narrative experience.

Vent and Aile.

An "Open" World

As for the game itself, the open world map shows its flaws much more clearly now that many other games have done it better since. I don't dislike it, but its novelty has worn off, and I realize that it feels kind of forced. The formula is still very much like the Zero series: you pick your mission, go to an area, and beat the boss. Having to find the area yourself ends up being more tedious than anything.

It does, however, serve as a neat way to hide collectables, and upgrades like life-ups and subtanks. The interconnected world makes you feel like you're actively searching for these things moreso than if there were a stage select.

This is the world map as it is presented in-game. Here, it presents itself as a grid. This is more like a vague rendition of the game's actual map, serving as a general overview and indication to what area is where.

The actual map, however, ends up looking more like this.

It is very Metroid in its design, and it isn't afraid to hide that fact. Every area is connected to another, and the transporters placed throughout each set of maps will take you to any area that you have already visited right away.

A Touch Of RPG

There are two "safe zones." One is in Area C, which you return to often. Area C is a zone that functions as a place of relative ceasefire, complete with NPCs to talk to and less baddies to fight. There's another in Area X, which is an airship completely removed from the rest of the map with members of The Guardians that you speak to. Both safe zones have numerous side quests for you to undertake from various NPCs.

"Area C" is a town full of friendly NPCs.
These quests often involve finding X item from Y area. While they add more depth to the game, as each quest gives you more reason to fully explore each area or revisit areas that you would otherwise leave behind, they can become quite tedious, especially towards the end of the game.

By that point, you've been doing these sorts of quests over and over again, and the formula of "go here and get this" begins to grate on you. They are all optional, but some of the upgrades for your character can only be gained through side quests, so you'll likely wind up doing quite a few of them.

A Brighter World And Softer Music

The music is still amazing. It has a trance-like vibe to it that I feel sets it apart from the more rock-centric X and Zero games. It's for the game's benefit, too, I think - it fits the less oppressive atmosphere, which is also portrayed through the game's brighter colors and cheerier looking areas. X and Zero were all about the robot apocalypse. ZX is a lot more lighthearted than that, and the shift in musical style certainly helps to drive that fact home.

The ZX series is much brighter than its predecessors.

Biometals: A Unique Mechanic

Then there's the biometals. I love the biometals.

The biometals supposedly contain the "souls" of the characters from the Zero series, which is a really neat nod to fans of those games. From a gameplay perspective, Model H, the Wind Mega Man, is significantly more useful than the other three, and Model L, the Water Mega Man, is barely useful at all, but they're still great fun to use, and it's super cool to be able to basically play as the Four Guardians from Mega Man Zero.

Vent and Model X.
Model X having his double charge shot from Mega Man X2 is a nice touch for fans of the X series, and the fact that Vent/Aile use Model X as a base to merge with the other biometals is a nice allusion to the original Mega Man X's role as the prototype model on which all other models are based.

I do wish that Model ZX, which is a fusion of X and Zero, had a bit more visible influence from X. What's the point of having a "ZX" character when the traces of X are barely visible?

From left to right: Model X, Z, F, H, L, and P.

From left to right: Model FX, HX, LX, and PX.

Model ZX, as used by Vent.

It's Not Over Yet

Luckily, ZX got a sequel with ZX Advent. Interestingly enough, it turns out that protagonists in this game, Grey and Ashe, play slightly differently, so my experience in this most recent playthrough had an added level of freshness to it (I went with Ashe last time, Grey this time). Vent/Aile return in this entry, as older and more capable characters. They fill in the "older brother/mentor" role that the Mega Man series is known to focus on.

This is, in my opinion, very, very cool. Whereas in the X series, especially in the first Mega Man X, you worked hard to reach your mentor's level, you were always playing as X, even after you caught up to your mentor Zero. Seeing your character from the last game from a third person perspective helps to cement them as the "powerful other," with the new sense of distance painting them as having lived up to their mentor's legacy in a more complete and effective way.

On that note, both Vent and Aile have cooled off a lot since their last appearance, although Vent still retains his nice guy persona and Aile is still a slightly cynical wise cracker. Once again, they cannot exist simultaneously, with Vent appearing in Ashe's game, while Aile appears in Grey's.

Rogue Gallery of Mega Men

The four Mega Men you fight throughout the game. From left to right, Thetis with Model L, Atlas with Model F, Aeolus with Model H, and Siarnaq with Model P.

This time around, each biometal is in the hands of another, antagonistic user, giving more personality to that particular biometal and allowing each of them to have more of a presence in the story. There is very much a Ronin Warriors/Power Rangers style presentation going on, with each user transforming into an elemental, color coded Mega Man using their respective biometal. It may be a bit cheesy, but it's infinitely more engaging than the way the biometals were treated in the first ZX, where they functioned as mere upgrades to collect.

An Upgrade in Plot

While I didn't touch on the plot of the first game, I think it's worth mentioning how well the story flows from the first game to its sequel. Mega Man games aren't exactly known for stellar storytelling, so any attempt at continuity is appreciated.

The story takes a very interesting approach that no other Mega Man series has done by replacing the protagonist entirely. I love when games do this and still tell a related narrative (Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid), so I'm a pretty big fan of this decision. Grey/Ashe's relation to Model W, the evil biometal at the center of both games, allows the story from the first game to advance in ways that it couldn't have if Vent/Aile had remained the focus.

I've said many times that I fell in love with Mega Man for the wrong reason, as I'm smitten with its story, world and characters, which are admittedly fairly barebones and cliche in their execution. Starting with the Zero series, however, it appears as if Capcom started putting a little extra effort into the plot and its writing, creating a much more cohesive narrative with clear cut story arcs and characters that have a bit more depth to them. It was a nice treat to see that trend continue with ZX and its sequel. Unfortunately, the story ends on a massive cliffhanger, one that will likely never be resolved.

Prometheus and Pandora return from ZX, and the sequel does much to expand upon their story.

Better Power-ups, Easier Traversal

Gameplay wise, they got rid of the Metroidvania map from #MegaManZX, at least to an extent. You still have to move from Point A -> B/C/D, but the map is so much more streamlined that there are no more "where do I go?" moments that will have you running to a map on GameFAQs.

Once again, Model H steals the show as the only real useful-at-all-times Biometal aside from Model A and ZX, but all (14!) transformations have their place. You get to play as the bosses this time around, as Model A copies the form of its enemies directly, which is both great as a novelty and fun in practice.

Model A outright copies the form of the foes it defeats, rather than merging with their biometals as Model X did.
My only complaint with the models this time around is how Grey/Ashe are constantly shifting back to Model A every time they enter into a cutscene or conversation. This becomes a problem especially after you copy Model ZX, which is almost objectively a superior model, and it becomes troublesome to have to keep switching back to it. Overall, however, this is a relatively minor gripe.

The only Mega Man game where you can play as each and every boss, final bosses excluded.
My opinion on the games remains largely the same as it was the first time I played them, which is that they are great games, some of the best Mega Man titles, and fantastic additions to the DS library. I prefer the first ZX, but only by a small margin. I would highly recommend both games, especially as they seem to get overshadowed by their more successful and well known brethren in the Mega Man series.

'Suikoden III' Retrospective: A Flawed, Annoying, Lovable Mess Of A Game

Ah, Suikoden. One of my favorite series ever. I've written about it countless times. I've gushed about its intricately designed world. I've praised its down-to-earth, rustic atmosphere. I've lauded how its game design still stands out as unique in the RPG genre, even today. I've even gone so far as to catalogue a general synopsis of what makes each game's region stand out. Even Suikoden IV, the worst entry in the series according to basically everybody, was a game I enjoyed simply due to being able to see more of the Suikoden world.

A Game Unlike its Brethren

Suikoden III is the black sheep of the series. Everything about it feels different from the other four mainline entries. Gone is the silent, nameable protagonist. Gone is the tradition of obtaining one of the series' true runes at the start of the game. Gone are the fully controllable party members. Even the series' hallmark feature, base building, is very subdued in comparison to the other games. You don't really acquire your base until well over halfway through the game, and by that point you've likely recruited everybody already.
Most of the base building is done through the optional chapters where you control Thomas, who is perhaps the most bizarre departure from series norms in the entire game. Thomas is a demure, polite, and entirely ordinary young man who is, by far, the weakest playable lead in the game. It's as if he took the one non-combat trait of all of the previous and subsequent protagonists — bringing together an army at a castle — and ran with it, leaving the hero business to everyone else.

That's him on the right. Oh, Thomas, you lovable goofball.

The Trinity System

As for the main heroes, they're also a huge departure from series tradition. Not only do they talk (!) but there's three of them (!!) and you get to choose in what order to play each of their stories. Each one of their stories feels quite different from the others, and, despite playing out in the same land at the same time and covering the same course of events, the three of them rarely interact with one another until the three plotlines converge at the end of Chapter 3. For a modern comparison, the constant switching between characters is a lot like Yakuza 0.
There's an overarching story about an invading army and a mysterious masked villain, but Hugo, Geddoe and Chris each see very, very different facets of this story. Hugo is a relatively aimless young boy from the rural Grasslands who learns to overcome his prejudices as his story progresses. Geddoe is a middle-aged man who leads a unit of ragtag mercenaries. Chris is a renowned knight captain who struggles with the burdens of fame and the corruption within her home nation of Zexen.
Hugo's chapters tell the story from the perspective of a rural tribesman.
Each character's story makes the same world feel entirely different. Hugo feels the most helpless, as a tribesman with a terrible temper who is consistently placed in situations out of his element. Geddoe doesn't even really feel like a hero, and more like a man who's just out to get his job done. Chris comes off as cold and pompous, and with a lot of the baggage that you usually see in people with affluenza. Yet all three manage to feel like distinct "good guys."
They may be atypical in several ways, but they circumvent genre tropes without resorting to the anti-hero cliche on the opposite side of the spectrum. Each lead character feels unique and fresh, even 13 or 14 years later. Even better, they all fit perfectly into the Suikoden universe, as if the side characters from previous games were suddenly thrust into the role of main hero.

Tradition Uprooted

My favorite part about the heroes in this game is that the story actually uses the traditional Suikoden setup to deconstruct player expectations. For you see, there was a typical Suikoden hero who managed to unite an army to fight the big bad army on the opposing side. You even get to name him. This "Flame Champion" is the real traditional hero of Suikoden III, but here's the kicker: his story was told 50 years ago. It's over.
Instead of playing the main Suiko storyline of kicking an evil army's butt, you're playing the aftermath. All three new heroes end up searching for this mysterious Flame Champion throughout the game, and he becomes the connecting thread that binds them together. Hell, even his design looks like the typical Suikoden hero, much more than any of the others do.

Chinese-inspired clothing and a Chinese martial artist-inspired weapon. Sure checks all the boxes for previous Suikoden leads.

One Step Forward, Three Steps Back

Notice how the characters are paired up in the upper right.

Where the game succeeds in telling a compelling story in a new way, it also fails in several ways the previous games did not. Rather than having six controllable party members, you have three "sets" or "pairs" of fighters. You can only give commands to one in each pair at a time. It feels like a rather arbitrary limitation, and a massive step back from controlling an entire party in the other four mainline entries. Even Suikoden IV, which only allows four members at a time, feels better than III, because in that game, you at least have full control over each of them.
Konami also decided to experiment with enemy and ally placement on the battlefield, allowing some spells to hurt your allies if they're within range. It's annoying, and adds nothing but frustration to the experience. Suikoden III, unfortunately, has the worst battle system in the series.

This game is full of dungeons that go on for forever, seemingly endless straight lines full of random encounters.

The step down in game design doesn't stop there. Many of the fields and dungeons are either massive corridors or open fields that stretch on for several screens. I fell asleep several times while exploring the different areas in this game (and that is no exaggeration).
The army battles, another series staple, are known to change with each game, but their Suikoden III incarnation is a simple board game that just results in your units auto-battling the enemy units in a typical fight. In all of the other games, each army battle had completely unique mechanics entirely removed from the normal battles in the game. This leaves them feeling largely tacked-on, and, more importantly, not very fun to play. Thankfully, one-on-one duels are still in, and are the same as ever.
The music is also a huge step down. Almost EVERY track in the game is forgettable. Let me list the ones that aren't: Exceeding LoveBlade and Beautiful Grasslands. Exceeding Love is actually still the best opening in any game I've played to this day, managing to evoke a sense of tribal mysticism with a made-up language, playing over absolutely gorgeous animation that sets the tone of the game almost perfectly. So, while it compensates for the lackluster OST in a fairly heavy way... it's not quite enough to redeem the full package for me. Most of the music is, like the dungeon crawling and battle system, boring.

A Great Narrative Wrapped in Tedium

Overall, my return to this game has left me a bit underwhelmed. I still enjoy it, and I still think it has a strong plot with an amazing multi-PoV system that I wish more games implemented. Playing it again 14 years later, however, its flaws only stand out even more. The graphics are ugly, the sound design is bad, the translation is bad at times, and the game part of the game is rather underwhelming.

As a Suikoden fan, I still loved seeing more of the world. One of Suikoden III's biggest assets is in how it manages to feel like a direct sequel to the previous two entries despite being so different. Old characters return in new roles, and Harmonia, the world superpower only alluded to in previous entries, begins to take center stage for the first time.
There's many twists and turns and revelations that will leave long-time fans of the universe very satisfied. However, it comes at the expense of the rest of the game not matching up to its story. As seen in the picture above, the Karaya clan that Hugo is a part of was mentioned way back in Suikoden II. The character you see there, Lucia, is also in this game. In fact, Hugo is her son!

If I were to recommend any order to play the Suikoden games, my new recommendation would be V - I - II - III, with IV and Tactics as extra sidestories, if you are so inclined to play a massively disconnected set of prequels.
III is definitively the narrative climax of the series, and its appeal is in the story and characters and world. Marching through the mechanically superior games first will give you the attachment you need to appreciate this game for what it is.
Suikoden VI... maybe we'll see you continue the story someday. The series really only needed one more game to finish its loose ends. A man can dream, at least.