Thursday, December 24, 2015

Resident Evil: Revelations 2 - A Dichotomy of Dialogue

Resident Evil: Revelations 2 was a surprise hit of 2015 for me. Despite carrying the Revelations subtitle, it did not have very much in common with the first game - the "Revelations" subset of Resident Evil games seems to be an attempt to create entries in the series using a smaller budget, allowing Capcom to experiment with new game mechanics that may seem out of place in the newer, action packed titles. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Revelations 2 is its absolutely absurd dialogue, particularly from the character of Moira Burton, who has the honor of gracing us with the term "moist barrel of fucks," which certainly doesn't sound like something a normal human being would say. The Resident Evil series is known for its cheesy dialogue, and it seems like they became totally self aware of that fact in this entry, writing ridiculous lines for the characters on purpose and frequently calling back to the "classic" bad dialogue of the original games. It's worth mentioning that Barry Burton, one of the supporting cast of the first Resident Evil game, was the source of a good portion of the game's infamously stilted dialogue, giving us now well known lines such as "I have THIS!" and "You were almost a Jill sandwich!" Barry returns as a protagonist in Revelations 2, and the writers are aware of his awkward infamy, frequently creating lines for his character to say that sound similarly ridiculous to the way he spoke in his first appearance.

Revelations 2 was released as a five part episodic game, and each episode was treated as an episode of a television series, complete with episode recaps and previews. I played each episode through twice as it released; once in English, and once in Japanese. I wanted to see whether or not the colorful dialogue was a localization choice or not, and, if not, what the original Japanese dialogue was like. Before I began, I did some research as to what language the script was written in first. Resident Resident Evil expert News Bot came to the rescue, claiming that "The Japanese script is the default canon in this series. It's usually written first but it was the opposite for REV2. Despite coming later, the Japanese script is still the 'canon' one." With this in mind, I delved into the two scripts, trying to keep an open mind as I did so.

Moira Burton: Perhaps one of the most vulgar characters written into a game... at least in the English version.
The results of my investigation showed similar scripts with very marked differences. While the English script took its ham and cheese and ran with it, the Japanese version took itself more seriously, much more like the original Resident Evil titles. Here are the posts I made while playing through the various scenarios.

Episode 1 - Claire

Alright, so I just finished Claire's scenario with Japanese voices on:

The dialogue has no ham or cheese at all. It takes itself very seriously and is presented as such. Moira is essentially a different character. She talks like a punk teenager, but not an overtly profane kind of punk teenager. No swearing. More stuff like "Aw, man" or "Come on". A couple of examples (paraphrased):

English: "What in the moist barrel of fucks-"

Japanese: *Distressed* "What is this place?"

English: "Fucking technology!"

Japanese: "Ugh, this is the worst."

English: "Fucking Barry! All he ever does is push back-"

Japanese: "Barry is the worst. He's always-"

Most of the F bombs are replaced with "saiyaku" which essentially means "the worst", or "this is the worst." The one line where she complains about Barry "granny swearing" is nonexistent, as far as I can tell. Nowhere near as vulgar. Claire is mostly the same, but sounds much more mature and motherly in Japanese, which is reflected mostly in her manner of speech but also in her voice itself.

Oh, the "Terr" doesn't have to end with "orist" line was definitely not in the JP dialogue. I don't remember what was said exactly. Something along the lines of "you can always count on us." Something you might hear in a real ad. No agency would EVER let the English one pass through, haha.

That said, I absolutely love Barry's English VA and dialogue, and I felt that Natalia's was great, too. I'm about to play through his segment in Japanese, so I'll give my impressions of that soon.

Episode 1 - Barry

Ok, finished Barry's scenario in Japanese. It is largely the same script with very few minor differences. The character's personalities are conveyed the same way, as well. Much less of a change coming from Claire's scenario. The "master of unlocking" callback to Resident Evil 1 is obviously missing, replaced with a generic "now we can get through" type of line. Two noticeable instances that stuck out to me:


Barry: What a pretty name.

Natalia: What's your name?

Barry: My name's Barry.

Natalia: Barry?

Barry: That's right, don't wear it out.


Barry: That's a nice name.

Natalia: What's your name?

Barry: My name's Barry.

Natalia: Barry?

Barry: Nice name, isn't it?

This came off as snarkier than his English dialogue. 

Another one that only makes sense if you've heard Japanese Moira:


Barry: Well, that was the really long way around...


Barry: That was a long way around. How terrible.

The "how terrible" he uses is the same "saiyaku" catchphrase Moira uses throughout her segment. The way it was translated conveys the sarcasm in his Japanese statement very well, but it was interesting to see that little nod to his daughter. I guess they didn't want sweet old Barry swearing up a storm. Another minor difference is that when Barry mentions Uroboros, Natalia doesn't screw up the name in the Japanese version. She sounds confused, but pronounces it correctly.

User Forneus claimed at this point that the "English dialogue seems like it has more personality. Moira sounds like a real person in English. Japanese version sounds stilted from those lines." 

I had this to say in return:

It may seem that way from looking at a script, but she is just as filled with personality in the Japanese version. There were a couple of instances where she seemed to show more emotion than the English Moira (like when you see the bodies hanging from hooks - she sounded genuinely disturbed here as opposed to moderately uncomfortable). You have to play it to see what I mean. Go ahead and try - the voice option is right there in the options menu! The main difference is in the lack of profanity. What they swap it with makes her seem not necessarily like a generic character, but more like... I dunno, a female version of Bill or Ted from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but less dumb. That's probably a poor analogy, but she is very "teenager" in the Japanese script.

Moira's voice itself is much closer to her English counterpart than Claire's, however. Claire's Japanese voice is much more soothing, and sounds older. Not sure if I like it better or worse. It's a unique take on her character.

Episode 2 - Claire

One thing I noticed is that Pedro is (surprise) portrayed differently. He doesn't say "balls" (obviously, as that's not really a thing in Japanese) or swear, but rather has lines like "Oh man" or "This is bad". One line I remember is this:


Pedro: "Gabe abandoned us! What are we gonna do?"


Pedro: "Gabe still isn't here? Do you think he ran away!?"

He seemed more hesitant to jump to the conclusion that Gabe abandoned them in Japanese. 

Another example of how Moira is portrayed differently:


Moira: "Chill the fuck out!"


Moira: "Calm down! Don't give up yet!"

In English, she sounded frustrated and condescending, while in Japanese, she sounded frustrated, but then tried to calm Pedro down in a positive way.

The most stand-out change in the script came from Gabe.


Gabe: *Defiantly* "We're not a bunch of lab rats!"


Gabe: *Exasperated* "I feel like the main character in a Kafka story."

Kind of a random change to make...

Overall, Gabe is mostly the same, Claire is the same, Moira is very different, Pedro is kinda different. 

At this point, News Bot asked: "Have you looked at Claire's absurd dialogue upon meeting Natalia? It's completely out of character. Maternal character with lots of experience with children suddenly forgets how to interact with children."

My response: I just finished Claire's scenario, and that segment was the same in Japanese. So her out of character behavior is the fault of the script writers, not the translation. She didn't sound as forceful in Japanese, and showed more concern than demand. That part in particular reminded me more of somebody's mom asking them tons of questions before they leave the house. "Do you have a coat? Do you have gloves? Where are you going? When will you be back? When-" etc. Nagging mom stuff. But, that also applies to how her Japanese voice actress portrays her as a whole.

Episode 2 - Barry

Played through Barry's scenario in Japanese. There was literally no difference other than one line spoken by the monster stalking you:


Monster: "You are false..."


Monster: "I will not forgive you."

Other than that it was exactly the same, almost word for word.

Episode 3 - Claire

Playing through in Japanese had the least amount of notable differences in any Claire scenario yet. I can't think of a single line worth noting. Besides the usual Moira not swearing, of course.

I stopped comparing the two scripts here, as life obligations got in the way and the differences in dialogue became less and less apparent with each entry. It was certainly interesting to see how the Japanese script took itself more seriously, as the English dialogue has since become well known for being over the top. Personally, I feel like the English cheese has its place, and I don't mind it so much in a game like Resident Evil, but if I had to choose, the Japanese script is the more preferable of the two. It feels authentic and natural, like it's going for a genuine horror vibe, and it doesn't feel contrived like you might expect. I actually got a much greater RE1/2/3 vibe from the Japanese script, even though the original games had cheese in their translations, too. Probably because the original games were all taking themselves seriously, and this translation goes all out and is pretty unapologetic in its... er, "creative" liberties that it takes. But it's not like they're worlds apart, either, aside from Moira's personality shift.

Perhaps I'll give the second half a game another run through, some day, and take more notes on the differences that the script shows between the two languages. As it stands, I feel like the notes I took give us a pretty good idea of what both scripts are like.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Through the Looking Glass

Growing up has been portrayed countless times in fiction. It's always a curiously painful experience, but rarely is it painted in at outright negative light. Peter Pan argued that growing up was lame, and had a land of eternal youth to prove how great childhood is, but the children from that movie still chose to grow up and leave their childhood behind, despite the joys of youth and the loss of these joys as one turns into an adult.

Two experiences in games, games that I played at the dawn of my adolescence, have portrayed the concept of coming into adulthood quite well, perhaps unintentionally.

Warning: there are spoilers for the games that follow. Those games are Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts II.

Example one:

Zanarkand, as Tidus knew it.
Final Fantasy X begins in the city of Zanarkand, a magnificent metropolis with advanced technology seemingly powered by water. The main character, Tidus, is a celebrity in this society, a superstar athlete who plays the fictional sport of Blitzball. He's the son of another famous athlete, and his troubles are the epitome of first world problems - he has a legacy to live up, his father was famous and neglected him as a child, and he's an adult that misses his deceased mother - but overall, he has it made.  He is wealthy, famous, and beloved.

This all changes when a monster known as Sin attacks the city, swallowing Tidus and spitting him out in a foreign land. The land is known as Spira, a place that Tidus has never heard of.  The most bizarre aspect of being flung into Spira is that in this world, Zanarkand is a city everyone knows as a society that was destroyed a thousand years ago. Determined to return home, one thing leads to another and he eventually ends up joining a summoner on their pilgrimage to Zanarkand, wanting to discover the mystery behind its supposed destruction and his appearance on Spira. Along the way, he is constantly learning about the land of Spira, its customs, its history, and the people who live there. He is very much ignorant of the world, especially of the hard lives that people face, and has to have others guide him almost every step of the way. He eventually does reach Zanarkand, and it is, indeed, a city in ruins.

The ruins of Zanarkand.
The Zanarkand he knew never existed. Along the way, he discovers the truth behind the city he grew up in and the reality that he thought he knew; his Zanarkand was known as Dream Zanarkand, a complicated illusion physically manifested by the dreams of the souls of those who lived in the real Zanarkand. It was an idealized version of the city in its prime, with even its inhabitants being complex dreams given physical form. Tidus realizes that he will never return home, because the home he remembers was never real. He is left with the ruined Zanarkand, the world he was placed in against his will, and he has to find a way to accept that this is his new reality.

Example two:

Roxas, during his life in Twilight Town.
In Kingdom Hearts II, Roxas is a boy who lives in a place called Twilight Town. He's a normal kid that has a group of friends that he regularly hangs out with. He attends school, enjoys his summer vacations, has hobbies that he likes, places he likes to go, and people that he loves. He is, for all intents and purposes, the very definition of normal. This all changes when monsters in white begin to show up in Twilight Town, followed by the appearance of mysterious hooded figures that only he can see and a man who claims to know Roxas, despite having never met him before.

In a twist reminiscent of the major plot revelation of The Matrix, Roxas eventually discovers that he is living in a fake Twilight Town, a digital replication of the real thing. His life was fabricated; everything he knew exists, but in a different form, in the real Twilight Town, without him. Roxas's memory was altered, his past life erased, and he was given the life he always wanted. In reality, Roxas was being used by Organization XIII, a group of criminals, and spent his days furthering their nefarious goals. His real identity, and his real past, are anything but what he thought they were, and far from what he wanted or expected from life.

A glimpse of Roxas's dark past, where he struggles to find his identity.
This particular metaphor has another layer to it. Without delving into the overly complex story of Kingdom Hearts, the basic gist of it is that Roxas himself was born from a different character's heart. He doesn't actually exist, instead being the shadow of another person. A large part of the message of the series, at least surrounding the segments concerning Roxas, is finding a sense of identity and coming to terms with reality and who you are. Eventually, Roxas accepts the truth, and merges with his "real" self, returning to the person he was originally supposed to be.

So, what does any of this have to do with childhood or growing up? Everything. Leaving childhood is a lot like entering into an entirely new world, with its own rules and values, much like the new realities that Tidus and Roxas must deal with in the worlds that they are thrown into. The scariest part of adulthood is looking back on the world that you thought existed, and realizing that this "new" world - the world of adulthood - was, in fact, the "real" world the entire time, with your childhood world existing as an illusion born out of lack of knowledge and childhood perception. You're left with the reality that you now exist in, despite never asking to be there, and you must find a way to cope with and accept this reality.

Tidus reaches Zanarkand in the real world, only to find it in ruins.
Playing these games in my early adolescence, the theme of accepting reality resonated very strongly with me. In our lives, we are thrown into our own version of Spira. Sometimes, we even return to where we came from, only to find it unrecognizable, or at least very different from what our childhood selves remember. Growing up is a sad and painful journey, but it's also a beautiful and enlightening one. For everything we thought we knew and everything we can't return to, we learn something new and gain new insight, abilities, and perspectives. We find new places to live in and new people to love. It's a painful farewell, saying goodbye to our childhood, but accepting the new world in which we live can be a very fulfilling experience. We learn so much in the world of our adulthood, and we meet so many people and form so many bonds that we could not have done had we remained in our childhood world.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mapping out Fiction: The Appeal of World Design

Recently, I've been blazing through Trails in the Sky: The Second Chapter, the second entry in the Trails of franchise and an infamous victim of a serious development crisis during its localization. Supposedly the translation process behind this game led some of its team members to contemplate suicide. Damn. Many thanks for bringing such a great game over, but if you had to go that far, I feel kind of bad playing it. Hats off to XSeed.

Trails is highly appealing to me for many reasons, but perhaps my favorite thing about the game is in its highly detailed and intricately realized world design spanning multiple games. There is a storied history behind the Zemuria continent where each of the games take place, and each set of games in the series leads us to a different region of the continent, each with its own culture and atmosphere. Trails in the Sky has us in Liberl, a constitutional monarchy loosely based off of the country of Thailand, and throughout the first two games we are introduced to the different regions of the country and their various subcultures, such as the heavily industrialized region of Zeiss or the mercantile region of Bose. The game frequently makes mention of other nations, as well, with characters from these nations often playing a large role in the story and sporting marked differences from the Liberl natives in their attitudes and appearance. One of the big names dropped often is the Empire of Erebonia, an imperialistic, military minded country to the north of Liberl that seems to be a major world superpower. While Erebonia is referenced several times throughout the trilogy, it is only visited in passing, and even then we only see very tiny glimpses of its border regions close to Liberl.

The Kingdom of Liberl.
The other sets of Trails games feature a new cast of characters and are set in other parts of the world, with each set of games telling its own self contained story while also painting a much larger picture of the Zemurian continent as a whole. Trails to Zero and Trails to Azure are the second set of Trails games, taking place in the region of Crossbell, which was only briefly mentioned in Sky but nonetheless plays an important role in the overall world setting, lying between the two superpowers of Calvard and Erebonia. Erebonia is the setting of the soon to be released Trails of Cold Steel. The appeal behind this is that we've only heard of these countries in passing despite them playing such a major role in the world's history and politics, and to finally see them realized with their own culture, politics, and characters is immensely satisfying after only being fed breadcrumbs with off-hand info and cameo appearances. To see the world slowly realized through the perspective of different characters from different regions gives it a feeling of authenticity that cannot be achieved through a single set of eyes.

The known Zemurian continent. Click for full size.
The Trails series has multiple games set in the same nation, giving it plenty of time to flesh out that particular region of the Zemurian continent, allowing the player to become intricately familiar with its residents, culture, and history. No character, including each and every NPC, goes unnamed, and you'll often see them return throughout the various installments - you'll watch marriages struggle, you'll see little orphans learn and grow, and you'll meet old friends you made a game prior. This is to say nothing of the major characters (you'll know them if they have a portrait) who evolve gradually over the course of the story. Because the story is given so much time to be told over the course of multiple games, the characters' growth feels authentic and happens at a natural pace. You'll never see a character change their personality with a haircut. Tales of the Abyss fans will get that reference. I want to give specific examples, but I can't without spoiling the story, so you'll have to take my word for it - the characters feel as if they have a lot of depth to them, and this is truly impressive considering that they can be fairly trope-y at times. It takes a special kind of writer to pull off a character that's both a JRPG stereotype and has multiple layers to their character.

I'll write more about the intriguing world of Trails later, after I've had a chance to play Cold Steel, but the focus on world design reminds me of another now defunct series that did something similar. That series is Suikoden.

The title seen here,"Genso Suikoden," is the title of the series as it is known in the east. It was localized as simply "Suikoden" when it came to the west.
A big part of Suikoden's appeal as a franchise, much like Trails, is in its interconnected world, with each game taking place in a different chunk of that world. Since Suikoden I, the Suikoverse has been set up to an extremely vast and diverse place, with each country having its own unique aesthetic and culture. The direction Konami took post Suikoden V, with an alternate continuity set in a different world, was so disappointing to so many because it abandoned a world that is extremely well cultivated and not yet entirely explored.

Pictures here is the northern continent. Two other major continents exist that we know of - the southern and the western continents - but the northern continent remains the most fully explored, and is also the seat of the major world superpower, The Holy Kingdom of Harmonia. The "Arcadian" nation is fan named and is not mentioned in any games.
Let's take a look at the settings from each major game, in their order of appearance.

Toran Republic (Previously the Scarlet Moon Empire)

Located in the southeast central region of the Northern Continent, the Toran Republic is typically full of vast plains, dense forests, and mountains. In other words, it's a pretty standard fantasy setting. What sets it apart from much of traditional fantasy, though, is that it generally feels very sparse and humble, and lacks the sense of grandeur that you would expect from a fantasy setting. Castles and bustling cities are few and far between, and the castles and large cities that do exist are generally modest in size and splendor. The Toran Republic blends the basic concepts of fantasy with something akin to rural Asian society, with many of the towns you visit being mountain hamlets or small villages. However, there's also an elven forest and a city of dwarves, which is located in a mountainous region. Toran is a nice blend between medieval European fantasy and a rural Asian aesthetic.

Dunan Republic (Formerly the Kingdom of Highland and the City-states of Jowston)

Located directly to the north of Toran, Dunan's existence was hinted at in the first game when Teo McDohl was sent here to do battle with the City-states of Jowston. Dunan is not too different from Toran, and also tends to blend the European and the Asian; however, Dunan seems to show a stronger affinity for the European side of the equation, with university cities such as Greenland and bustling cities such as South Window. In addition, Dunan seems to be a slightly more mountainous region than Toran. The geopolitical landscape plays a much more significant role during the time that Suikoden II takes place than it did in the previous installment, as the game takes place within two opposing nations, as opposed to the rebellion against a single nation in the first game.

The Grasslands and Zexen Confederacy

Again, we have a game taking place within two different settings, and again, it is located to the north of the previous game's setting. The Grasslands are home to a sparse and rustic tribal society, and have a much stronger thematic focus than the settings of the first two games. Zexen is strongly influenced by medieval European society, complete with orders of knights and the concept of a nobility. The confederacy was founded by wealthy traders, and it shows; towns and cities in Zexen are very developed, and contrast strongly with their Grassland neighbors. The Grasslands gifted us with duck and lizard people.

The Island Nations

This time, we go south, all the way off the coast of the Northern Continent and into the sea separating it from the Southern Continent. The Island Nations are a confederation of loosely affiliated islands including the Kingdom of Obel and its surrounding neighbors. Most of this area is, not surprisingly, comprised of water. It also made for the worst, most tedious world map traversal in an RPG ever. The Islands Nations, also unsurprisingly, have a very "seafaring" feel to them, both in aesthetics and in the way it reflects in their society. Each island feels generally secluded from the other islands, although mountainous regions appear to be fairly common. The concept of royalty exists in the Kingdom of Obel, and while Obel appears to be the de facto leader of the Island Nations, it does not hold absolute power. Interestingly enough, Razril, which plays a central role in the plot and is the island you begin on, belongs to the Dukedom of Gaien up until the end of the game, and is not considered a part of The Island Nations.

Kooluk Empire

Located directly north of The Island Nations and directly south of the Scarlet Moon Empire, Kooluk shares more in common geologically with its southern neighbor, sans the gratuitous amounts of water. Its landscapes are rocky and mountainous, and the lack of color on its flag is an accurate representation of what its terrain looks like - misty and grey. Politically, however, Kooluk is more like Scarlet Moon, being ruled by an Emperor and existing as a highly militaristic society.

Queendom of Falena

The only location on the Southern Continent we get to visit, the Queendom of Falena, as its name suggests, is a matriarchal society. The concept of royalty and nobility runs deep in Falena, and the political machinations of the Falenan nobility are the central focus of the game's plot. The country is noticeably vibrant and lush, and possesses many rivers and a warm, temperate atmosphere. Travel by boat is fairly common. Most of the major cities of the Queendom of Falena are located on the Feitas River, including the capital, Sol-Falena. Beaver people make their home here.

The Holy Kingdom of Harmonia was visited briefly in Suikoden III, and was featured in the spinoff game Suikogaiden II, but much of it remains unseen and unexplored. Which is somewhat ironic, considering that it is by far the most influential country mentioned in the series. From the brief glimpses of it that we do see, it appears to be a country full of greenery, with extravagant architecture designed with a beautiful crystal motif.

My personal favorite is Falena, as it's truly an amazing setting with a great setup for a political Suikoden plot, what with its noble houses and all. They're all fantastic, however. The Island Nations are a huge pain to navigate in game, mostly because your ship is slow as molasses, but the overall high seas aesthetic is extremely appealing on a purely visual level.

A well built world is a rarity in games. Frequently we only see a tiny glimpse into whatever world the creators have cooked up, so it's always satisfying to find a series that takes its world building seriously, and does it well. Suikoden may be a lost cause with its mother company Konami renouncing the console game business, but the Trails series has been a breath of fresh air, and much like a successor to the Suikoden series in the sense that it has a detailed world spanning several games. Let's hope that the Trails series sees itself through to its conclusion!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Mario RPGs: A Retrospective Look

Ok, so, everyone loves Mario RPGs. They're probably one of the most loved spinoff series out there. They're spinoffs with spinoffs of their own, even - Super Paper Mario and Sticker Star take the Paper Mario formula and create their own unique take on the series, with SPM combining RPG elements with traditional Mario platforming and Sticker Star creating a streamlined handheld experience. True, SPM and SS aren't as lauded as the mainline RPGs, and SS gets downright spit upon at times, but it still speaks volumes for Mario RPGs as a whole when they create spinoffs despite already being spinoffs themselves.

Let's look back at each Mario RPG, where it came from, and what it offered.

Super Mario RPG

A joint effort between Nintendo and Squaresoft, the RPG giant of its time, SMRPG began the unlikely marriage between the red plumber, stats, and storyline. This title introduced the action combat system that every future Mario RPG would build on, requiring timed button presses to attack or defend with more efficiency. Perhaps the most unique aspect of SMRPG is in its ousting of Bowser as the main villain, instead introducing Squaresoft's own gang of baddies: The Smithy Gang, a group of interstellar hooligans bent on conquering the Mushroom Kingdom.

While the story was still relatively simple compared to standard RPGs, it really shone in its fusion of the standard "quest to save the world" that grandiose games such as Final Fantasy were known for and the traditional Mario charm of the mainline Mario games. The script relied heavily on humor and a unique brand of quirkiness, but never shunned its purpose to deliver a story centric Mario game: you felt the presence of the Smithy Gang in each area of the Mushroom Kingdom that you visited, and their omnipresence created a sense of urgency that the world needed to be saved. Another staple that SMRPG introduced was the gathering of seven stars, which would later be repeated in Paper Mario and The Thousand Year Door.

Paper Mario

While it began as Super Mario RPG 2, with incessant promises from Nintendo Power that the graphics "weren't finished yet", Paper Mario eventually embraced its paper aesthetic and created a franchise of its own. Squaresoft had fallen into disagreement with Nintendo for various reasons, so this next entry in the RPG series was left to Intelligent Systems, the developer of the Famicom/Advance Wars and Fire Emblem series. Paper Mario built heavily on its predecessor, but left behind a bit of the standard RPG flair that Square had injected into SMRPG in favor of a more simplistic Mario-esque flavor.

Hit points and flower points were drastically scaled down, and the battle system was retooled to accommodate Mario as its primary player, with partner characters being limited to one at a time. This time around, however, partners had uses outside of battle, leading to more emphasis on light puzzle solving than in SMRPG. The biggest change between the two titles was, of course, the graphical style, with Paper Mario abandoning the isometric view for a two dimensional side view. The story was less "epic" and Final Fantasy-esque, but one could argue that it contained much more whimsy and charm as a substitute.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door

A direct, by the numbers sequel to Paper Mario 64, TTYD left the Mushroom Kingdom for the unique setting of Rogueport. Unlike the transition from SMRPG -> Paper Mario 64, most things stayed the same from 64 -> TTYD, likely as a result of same name branding and the fact that it kept the same developer this time around. At face value, TTYD is a reskin of PM64, with new areas, plot, and characters. However, if it ain't broke, don't fix it: as seen by the Metacritic link above, TTYD is the most highly rated Mario RPG, with fans singing its praises.

TTYD shines in how it refined the 64 formula: it took full advantage of its paper aesthetic, with Mario turning into paper planes, paper boats, and rolls of paper, and benefited also from the boost in hardware from the Gamecube, allowing many characters on screen at a time. TTYD also boasted incredibly creative segments where you would suddenly be placed in the control of the enemy, as in the Dooplis scenario, recreations of classic platforming in the Bowser segments, and entering pipes that led to the backdrop of each area. TTYD may have treaded extremely similar ground as the game that came before it, but its execution left it a beloved entry in the franchise.

Mario and Luigi

Developed by Alphadream, this was the portable cousin of Paper Mario. Opting for a more straightforward, yet still extremely recognizable and creative 2D sprite style, Mario and Luigi's main attraction was - you guessed it - the spotlight on the Mario Bros, rather than just Mario. The battle system was again an action oriented, timed button pressing affair, only this time it forewent the partner system to focus entirely on Mario and Luigi. Bros attacks and abilities hogged the spotlight in and out of battle, with the Mario Bros working together to spin, roll, and hammer their way across the Beanbean Kingdom.

Oh, that's right: the M&L series took us to another new land with its own race of people, the Beanish, paralleling the Toads of The Mushroom Kingdom, and brought us to locales with a unique laughter theme to their names, such as Teehee Valley or Chucklehuck Woods. Bowser once again took a role as a supporting character, leaving the spotlight to new villains from the Beanbean Kingdom. Perhaps the biggest treat for fans of SMRPG was the return of Yoko Shimomura as the series composer, lending a similar atmosphere to Mario's first RPG outing. (Sunken Ship theme remix, anyone?)

Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time

Bringing us back (quite literally) to the Mushroom Kingdom, PiT took full advantage of the DS and used its dual screens to offer refinements to Superstar Saga's gameplay. Playing off of the "dual" theme, Mario and Luigi teamed up with baby versions of themselves, with much of the game taking place in the Mushroom Kingdom's past. The alien race of Shroobs took the center role as the main enemy, harkening back to the "group villain" role the Smithy Gang played in SMRPG. PiT made some controversial changes, such as removing the overworld for a point and click world map, but it was by and large a very similar game to Superstar Saga.

Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story

This is where the M&L series really started to diverge. While it kept its turn based, timed button pressing battle system, BiS forewent the Bros moves established in the first two games and instead gave control over to the King of the Koopas, Bowser himself, for the overworld segments of the game. Bowser fought alone, but was much more powerful than Mario and Luigi combined. As a result, he fought stronger enemies. He also came equipped with his own moveset, entirely unique from either Mario Bro. Bowser also introduced giant battles to the series, creatively using the DS turned on its side for extremely unique and satisfying boss battles.

Mario and Luigi were, of course, still central players in the story and in gameplay, but their roles changed significantly: for a good portion of the game, they remained stuck inside of Bowser, and their gameplay segments played out on a strictly two dimensional plane. Bowser was definitely the star of this game, even if the two Mario Bros were present throughout; he carried the brunt of the story and was in charge of at least 90% of the game's map traversal, with Mario and Luigi only becoming able to retread his steps towards the end of the game.

Mario and Luigi: Dream Team

The first 3DS entry, and perhaps the most polarizing entry in the M&L franchise, Dream Team gives the spotlight back to Mario and Luigi. Well, actually, it mostly gives it to Luigi; the game was released in 2013, Nintendo's Year of Luigi, and gives extra attention to Mario's neglected bro. Taking on a unique dream world mechanic, Dream Team has a normal and dream version of each area of Pi'llo Island. The normal areas function much like those from the first two entries, while the dream worlds were reminiscent of the areas inside of Bowser in BiS, only this time with their own unique dream world gameplay.

While the game was incredibly progressive in the sense that each new area introduced a new ability and way to approach the game, it was also derided for its extensive tutorials, which were perhaps a side effect of attempting to cram so much newness into every area. Overall, Dream Team has the most advanced presentation in the M&L series, with gorgeous spritework and a fantastic OST, and is an incredibly innovative entry not only in the RPG spinoff series, but in the Mario franchise as a whole. Its experimental nature leaves it rife with flaws, however, leaving it as highly praised by some as it is lambasted by others.

And then we have the two black sheep.

Super Paper Mario

Released for the Wii as a pseudo-sequel to The Thousand Year Door, Super Paper Mario abandons its RPG heritage for a strong focus on platforming. The text heavy plot, an emphasis on characterization, a quirky setting, and the existence of hit points are all carried over from Paper Mario proper, but gone are the turn based battle system and 3D field maps, replaced with the traditional 2D planes that classic Mario games are known for. While not an RPG in the traditional sense, SPM still features an intricate, chapter based plot, and is also the only instance in the series where Luigi becomes a playable character.

Paper Mario: Sticker Star

Deviating from the series' position as the "console" branch of the Mario RPG series, Intelligent Systems released Sticker Star for the 3DS. Sticker Star heavily relies on stickers as a gameplay mechanic, with each sticker resembling a real world object, such as a pair of scissors. Apparently a victim of a development crisis, Miyamoto himself signficantly turned the tables on the game during the time it was being made. IS was given orders to remove "non-Mario" characters and to make them instantly recognizable faces from the franchise, as well as to de-emphasize the text heavy focus that the series was known for, opting for a game with little to no dialogue, plot, or character interaction. Needless to say, this upset quite a few fans. Nonetheless, many praise the game for its stellar soundtrack and captivating world design.

Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam

The next entry in the series attempts to combine the Mario and Luigi series with the Paper Mario series, although it seems to be first and foremost a M&L game. The game was recently released in Europe, and will be making its way to the states in January. I think it looks like it has more promise than Dream Team, and certainly more than Sticker Star, although I am a bit concerned about Paper Mario playing second fiddle. Time will tell where it ranks among the rest.

As for my personal favorite, it has to be the original: Super Mario RPG.

I loved this game. I love this game. This game is amazing and anyone who likes Mario and/or Final Fantasy should play it. I've replayed this game probably over ten times in my life and I just did it again recently. Why do I love it so much? Nostalgia, mostly, since the game hasn't aged particularly well, what with its dated 90's RPG mechanics.

But at the time? It was a powerhouse, not only because it's a fine RPG in its own right, but because it was the first to take Mario and put him in a game with a real narrative. I don't think anybody could have seen this game coming, especially because the king of RPGs, Squaresoft, is the one who made it. But it's not all nostalgia. There's a few reasons I keep coming back to this game in particular.

-Yoko Shimomura is at her finest here. Every track represents the cheerfulness and whimsy of Mario fused together with the fantastical, grand scope of an RPG.

Beware the Forest's Mushrooms

Koopa Castle

The Road is Full of Dangers

Grandpa and the Delightful Tadpoles

Where am I Going?

Fight Against Smithy

-The game oozes charm and atmosphere.

-The timed attacks aren't innovative by today's standards, but back then they were a pretty big thing, and they're still fun to use. Timing spells is still kind of awkward, but it's extremely satisfying to time something right in this game. That extra clunk from Mario's shells, the extra hit from his hammer, Bowser's spike chain remaining in the enemy and protruding its spikes to hit them again and again... you feel like your extra input has done something. I think the sound effects really make it work.

-Beginning the game with a fight against Bowser, only to have him usurped by a greater evil, is great. The Mario and Luigi RPGs play off similar concepts, but never to the extent seen here. Bowser later becomes a full fledged party member in order to take back what Smithy and his gang stole. Bowser's Inside Story played off the playable Bowser concept, but never again has he actually stood side by side with Mario until the very end of the game.

-Smithy's gang has such a presence throughout the game. From the time you're ousted from Bowser's Keep, to the dark and ominous arrow-infested Rose Town, to the strange goings-on in the Moleville Mines, all the way up until the end of the game, you feel Smithy's presence in the world. Bowser seems like a one-note villain compared to him. The Final Fantasy esque "journey to save the world" trope really bleeds into the way this game is set up, and seeing something like that in the Marioverse is so awesome.

-Geno is in this game. The world is so at risk that a being from a higher plane comes down to assist Mario. I absolutely loved his story as a kid, although nowadays I often think they could have explored it more in depth.

-The art style is great. I love the spritework, and, like the game does with its music, the settings are usually creative and a nice blend between fantasy tropes and the weirdness of the Mario world.

I want a real Super Mario RPG 2. Until that happens, though, this game will always be up there as one of the best.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Looking Back at Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII

With the Final Fantasy VII remake now a reality, many people are returning to the universe to satiate their desire for more VII.

Crisis Core is probably the biggest project in terms of importance to the overall VII story. I remember back in the day, when this was first announced as an FFVII prequel starring Zack. It seemed surreal, and then when the game finally came out and we got to revisit the FFVII universe, it was like a dream come true. Now, Crisis Core wasn't the first revisit to the FFVII world - no, that honor goes to Before Crisis, an episodic, subscription based spinoff for mobile phones that came out in 2004 only in Japan (seriously, Japan was way ahead of the curve). However, most of us in the west never got to experience this game, which is a huge shame as it tells a gigantic portion of Nu-FFVII lore, focusing on the conflict between Shinra Corporation and AVALANCHE that occurred years before the main game. A major appeal of this game is that you played as The Turks, originally portrayed as a black ops unit within Shinra that served as minor villains in the original game. Before Crisis had some pretty creative mechanics, such as using the phone camera to snap pictures of your environment to create materia, which highlights its nature as a very early, experimental mobile game. Nowadays there is a movie uploaded to Youtube that records and translates the entire game, and The Lifestream has overviews and translations of individual episodes of the series.

No, most of us first re-experienced Final Fantasy VII with Advent Children, which sold itself more on being related to FFVII than on its own merits. At the time, all we wanted was more Cloud and co. The movie did give us that, and it was our first time seeing our beloved lego characters as realistic people, which was admittedly also much of the movie's appeal. It was a visual masterpiece - the CGI was truly stunning for 2005 - and the soundtrack was fantastic. However, looking back, it's got much more style than substance. I'm pretty alright with this. An action flick with some of my favorite characters from one of my favorite universes is pretty cool, even if I wanted something more out of it. Although, I can see why some people were disappointed. The original game had an involved story and a gigantic scope, so many were most likely expecting something a bit more substantial than what AC gave us.

The next addition that was added to the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII," as it had come to be called, was Dirge of Cerberus, a sequel to Advent Children starring Vincent Valentine. Reactions to this were mixed to negative, mostly criticizing the game for being a fairly clunky third person shooter and removing its online component, which was a huge part of its original Japanese release and even contained a large chunk of the story within it.

Advent Children originally released with an Original Video Animation, or OVA, called Last Order: Final Fantasy VII. This OVA is integral to fully realizing the hype machine behind Crisis Core. It focuses on perhaps the most compelling segment of the original game, which is the original, unadulterated Nibelheim flashback, the one that isn't tainted by Cloud's falsified memories. This flashback introduced us to the character of Zack, the real SOLDIER First Class, original wielder of the iconic Buster Sword, and the man who Cloud thought he was. For how important of a character Zack was from a story standpoint, he received painfully little screen time, only appearing in two flashback sequences, one of which was entirely optional.

Last Order basically turned these sequences into an animated short by MADHOUSE, who has since become popularly known for animating the series of Death Note and, much more recently, One Punch Man. Last Order focused on Zack, and it was full of high octane action and a killer soundtrack. I might even like the music that plays when Sephiroth approaches JENOVA in the mako reactor more than that that plays in the original game. The extra scenes it added with Zack escaping on a stolen Shinra motorcycle were a particular favorite of mine, as it added a really nice little bit of extra flair to his escape.

Now, Crisis Core was announced after Advent Children and Last Order, and Last Order in many ways functioned as a sort of promo for Crisis Core. An action RPG! Not a movie, mobile experiment, or a shooter - an RPG! Starring Zack! It was announced alongside a few screenshots, showcasing the game pushing the PSP's portable little gears to its limits and showing off what the system was really capable of. The hype for this game was palpable.

As for the game itself, when it finally did release in 2007, it was received well enough. It took an interesting approach to being an Action RPG, focusing heavily on menu based commands, a slot system for limit breaks (artistically dubbed Digital Mind Wave - hoo boy), and only starring a single player character in Zack. The Materia Fusion was a rather large part of the game's mechanics, as were the side missions, which were designed with its portable nature in mind and were quick romps through corridor based segments of gameplay. This upset some people, although, like with Advent Children, I was pretty ok with this too, as the battle system was pretty fun and the repetitive nature of the missions was easy enough to overlook if you played the game in bursts, like it was intended.

The story in the game was what I was really looking forward to, and I feel that it delivered immensely.The impetus for Zack's journey is that he wants to become a hero. That's it! That's all. Sounds pretty boring, right? Well, the game does a much better job with the story it isn't trying to tell than the one that it is. SOLDIER's internal strife, seeing the upper plate of Midgar, seeing what SOLDIERS do both on and off the job and giving them a face and a purpose, showing the contrast between slum life and corporate life, showing us how Shinra screws up your family life - I love how Genesis had normal parents and it was good guy Angeal's dad who was messed up - giving Hojo a scientific rival where he was the only scientist at all in the original in a world where that's pretty important (besides Gast, who was dead), showing us a bit of the war with Wutai that was only briefly mentioned, showing us more of Cloud and what he was like as a Shinra grunt, showing us the relationship between Aerith and Zack that was briefly mentioned in the original game, etc.

Crisis Core did a really good job at showing us the human Sephiroth, too. I love the line when he's talking to Zack and Zack says something like "For real!?" and then Seph laughs and says "For real." That's something we'd never see him do after his fall. It was the same with talking about his past and having friends. Also, there was Tseng and Aerith's relationship, which felt tacked on in the original FFVII but more fleshed out as something innocently one-sided in Crisis Core. Tseng himself also got a lot of focus, which was nice, as he was absent for a good portion of VII.

As an aside, Before Crisis showed us more of the Shinra hero side of Sephiroth. I wish that this game was localized somehow, as it really was a huge part of the compilation. While CC shows us what's going on in SOLDIER, it's pretty compartmentalized in that regard. An equally important story, Shinra vs. AVALANCHE, happens concurrently in BC, and also fills in the gaps from when Zack was knocked out in a tube in Nibelheim. I would even call it the "main" story of the prequels, whereas CC is, like I said, more of a side story.

By far the best parts of the game were seeing Zack and Cloud interact with one another and what Sephiroth was like pre-insanity. Zack, and SOLDIER in general, really, were such huge parts of the FF7 lore, and it was so satisfying to see them finally fleshed out in a game. Zack (the very brief glimpses of him we see) was portrayed in Final Fantasy VII as a headstrong, friendly, outgoing guy, and his Crisis Core self was the perfect reflection of that. Cloud was not always the cocky and arrogant man that he begins as in VII, originally being a meek and mild boy. Crisis Core shows us more of this side of him, his original personality, if you will, and you get to watch him gradually become attached to Zack as a sort of older brother or mentor figure.

The "become a hero" story was basically fluff to show us all of that. At least, that's how I see Crisis Core. It's a side story. It's more of a companion than its own thing. A reason for us to return to and see more of Final Fantasy VII's world and characters, which the game did and did well.

I totally understand people being upset with the over the top ending and key word: hero nature of the story, but the first is a matter of taste (I very much enjoyed the ending to this game, and the playable segment was amaaaaazing) and the second I already commented on, where the background story is more interesting than the story about becoming a hero, which is really only a vehicle for Zack to experience the things that he does.

Zack's death in the original VII flashback was short, quick, and violent, a testament to the brutality of Shinra and the world that the VII characters inhabit. Zack's death in Crisis Core is full of flair, and is really quite the opposite of its original rendition in terms of tone, even though it keeps the final segment where the three Shinra grunts overtake him. It was a bold decision for Square to change the ending the way they did, but I personally love both versions of it.

Oh, and the soundtrack is amazing. The World's Enemy is the creepiest rendition of One-winged Angel there is in a game. Dreams and Pride accurately represents the starry eyed, ambitious young version of Zack that we start the game as. Moonlit Wandering has that melancholy country vibe to it, perfect for Zack's escape from the Shinra mansion. Howl of the Gathered plays during battles in the final dungeon, reflecting Zack's desperation to return to Midgar. Even better is that renditions of some of these tracks were originally heard in the Last Order OVA, which, by the way, is mostly canon to this game and shows events that the game itself skips over, the two biggest ones being Zack on the highway and showing more of the truck scene at the end.

It will be interesting to see how much of this game makes it into the VII remake. Perhaps the most highly divisive element of Crisis Core was the character of Genesis, who shared the voice and likeness of Japanese pop star Gackt. The reason people took issue with Genesis wasn't because of his appearance or voice, however - the man had a tendency to constantly recite poetry in place of actual dialogue, played an extremely integral role in a story where he didn't exist in prior VII lore, and even shoehorned his way into cutscenes depicting events from the original game, such as the Nibelheim flashback. My opinions on Genesis are divided. He is more appealing conceptually than he is as he is portrayed in game, as a friend of Sephiroth and fellow SOLDIER First Class. His nature as a genetic experiment might be a bit copy-paste from Sephiroth's own story, but I feel like it has a realistically believable in-universe explanation, as Shinra is wont to do these sorts of things since way back in the timeline - see: Vincent Valentine's flashback, over fifty years before the main story. He certainly had no place in the Nibelheim scene, but other than that I think he functions well enough as the primary villain of the game. Interestingly enough, Gackt's contract is rumored to be the most likely reason that the game hasn't seen a digital re-release on the PlayStation Network, so Genesis's inclusion in the VII remake remains largely up in the air. I think we can say for certain we'll be seeing more of Zack, at least!

One last comment about the soundtrack and the ending: perhaps a divisive opinion, but The Price of Freedom is the best damn final battle music in any game, ever.