Sunday, March 13, 2011

Japanese Influences, Part Two

Mario. Zelda. Mario made the rules of platforming. I've seen the level 1-1 repainted on a wall in a Cleveland bathroom and on tattoos and seen pictures of it in a baby's room, around the crib. Zelda made the rules of an action-adventure. There are dungeons. You fight through them. Plus, Link looks like me. Kind of. More than that, Zelda is exciting. I got scared going through dungeons in Zelda. I was worried about being killed in the labyrinth before getting to the Forest Temple.

Pokemon, might have been the only videogame I played for years and years. I think I stopped playing around college. Some of my friends still do. Pokemon is a culture unto itself, one that I left about the time that I realized I didn't care to repeat the same mechanics for creatures for hours on end. I look back on Pokemon fondly.

The Final Fantasy series is synonymous with Japanese role playing games and those also occupied a place in my heart. I bought 8 first and not 7. The ones I have played are: 6,7,8 and bits of 10. Six (whichever one is the one with the Espers, since that's much clearer) was a mindfuck that became clearer the more I played. Seven, well, it's hard to have an opinion on it without pissing someone off, but at the time, I enjoyed the game, a lot.

Two points indelibly stick out.

First and most obviously, the death of Aeris. That, in a single stroke of plot, was a shot to the gut of JRPG players who knew enough about the genre never to expect the death of a major character within the first disc of a three disc game. Of course, the minute you try to explain her assassination in ingame logic, it falls apart, but from far away, it's a revelation.

The second is literally getting into the head of Squall, finding out he's a guy who was so messed up from Sephiroth's betrayal and going crazy that he based his personality around the squad leader who'se orders he was following.

And then there's drawbacks. The padding in the game. Barrett's character. The sharp decline in humor after the first disc and the falling back on exploration tropes for the entire middle of the game.

Eight was my first. You don't forget your first, right? The combat system was eh. I don't remember much. I remember the rocket bit. I remember Seifer and Edea, vaguely. Swords. I remember the dance scene FMV. I remember Eight being more lush, but I haven't gone back to it.

Chrono Cross. My gold standard of Japanese RPGs. The story is labyrinthine and connects Cross to Trigger intimately. Bright colors everywhere. Character designs felt fresh. You could choose how you seriously you wanted to take the story with the characters (40+) you could bring along.

The battle system! Okay. The battle system works like this.

You have a set number of points (7), which regenerate. You can use them to cast spells, which take your points down by seven, or attack. So long as you have positive points, you can cast a spell. There are three kinds of attacks, low, high and medium, each of which do more or less damage, but for more points (1,3 and 5). So: if you wanted to, you could do a heavy attack and then cast a huge spell with a character but it would leave them helpless as their points regenerated from negative 6 or 7 to something where you could use them again.

It works better in practice than in words and it made battles deeper and more interesting. Also, there were different flavors of spells, that if a bunch of them were cast in a row, would do more damage or have their effects increased. Which means, you had to pay attention to what was being cast and if you were particularly good at it, use the enemy's spells to your advantage. And, if you got the spell board entirely of one color, you could drop a super attack of that color on an enemy, which, as super attacks go, is super awesome.

If I'm remembering correctly, you can even recruit a glam rock group to fight alongside you. (I think it's a play on some really random J-rock/visual kei band, but, but still.)

Beyond that? Plenty of little things to collect, if you wanted to. Plenty of secret characters, multiple ending points once you beat the game once. NewGame+, implemented well. Again.

Chrono Trigger is a grand slam.
Chrono Cross is an inside the park home run to win the game.

Persona 3 is high school, if high school was unspeakably terrifying and awesome due to fighting nightmare monsters for your extracurricular activities. If high school was fucking sweet, Persona 3 would be it. The battle system is fairly traditional. Also, I sunk 140+ hours into the universe.

I haven't touched Persona 4 yet. I'm terrified. I don't have a week and a half free to play it.

Metal Gear Solid gets ripped on, brutally, for trying to talk about war and nuclear weapons and the military industrial complex in a videogame. Kojima's hamfists, sometimes, with overlong cut-sequences for minor points, but fuck it: Dude's actually trying to say something with the videogames that have his name on them. In a culture and genre where game creators go to great pains to avoid saying anything controversial, Metal Gear Solid is a l'enfant terrible, shitting all over their silences and omissions, often not doing it well, but there is a good message in the game.

As proof: You can go through Metal Gear Solid 2 without killing a single person (and the game gives you the tools to do it.) You get guns, but there is always an option available to knock out guards instead of murdering them and hiding them in a locker. It's a degree of difficulty that's indicative of how easy it is to kill people and when the player chooses to remove the option, it reveals something foundational about violence.

Metal Gear Solid 2 terrified me when I played it. I've written about its effects on me elsewhere and I'll probably quote them at length. For half a year after that game, in real life, I peeked down hallways before walking down them, afraid I'd find terrorist minions.

Also! Terrorism! Presented in a way that was ambiguous and not clear who the real goons and bad guys are. Metal Gear Solid has a fucking point. There aren't many videogames that do. And when it fails or isn't perfect, that fucking point is still what separates from the dreck that kids call shooty games. It's not enough that Metal Gear Solid has a point, but that it's also a good one and one that goes unappreciated by the people that play it.

In short: Metal Gear Solid dares. Repeatedly and as a matter of course.

Would that it happened more often.

Have I shown this one before? I don't know. I don't think so. When You Were Young, live from the Royal Albert Hall. "Let's see what this thing can do," indeed. Play loud.

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