I’m a Phan of Their Old Stuff…

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

During the console wars of the 1980s and 1990s, different companies soon developed different specialisations, based in part on the limitations of the hardware they produced, in part on the developers they could lure to work for them, and in part on the way they wanted to target the marketing of the console. Perhaps this so many of the console RPGs of the era we remember fondly hailed from the NES or SNES – Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Chrono Trigger, Shin Megami Tensei, all the major series from the major developers were Nintendo-exclusives.

The major exception was the Phantasy Star series, the most famous CRPG to appear on Sega systems. In particular, the first four games in the series craft a saga telling the long-term history of a particular star system which in terms of its plot was as ambitious as anything other CRPG series were producing at the time, if not more so – and also had a science fantasy aesthetic that set it apart. Thankfully, in these days of widespread emulation and companies cashing in on their back catalogues by releasing cheap downloads or compilations of their old games, it’s now eminently possible to experience the early Phantasy Star series again – but is it worth it?

Phantasy Star

Released on the Sega Master System at the end of 1987, Phantasy Star was amongst the first clutch of JRPGs developed in response to the first Dragon Quest game launched the genre – it came out in the same month as the first Final Fantasy game, and a few months after the first Megami Tensei game, and like all of them it draws a lot on the Dragon Quest formula but also updates it in its own fashion.

The setting for the game is the Algol star system, the habitable planets of which are the verdant world of Palma, the ice world Dezoris, and the desert world of Motavia (yes, you do get to fight sandworms on Motavia). Palma and its colonies on Dezoris and Motavia is ruled by King Lassic, a formerly benevolent ruler who has become more and more tyrannical as the years have passed after coming under the influence of a sinister cult who promise immortality to their followers. At the start of the game Nero, who’s the brother of the protagonist Alis, is murdered by Lassic’s goons (who are, of course, dressed like Imperial Stormtroopers) as a warning to others not to meddle in Lassic’s affairs. Enraged by the death of her brother, Alis takes up his sword and vows bloody revenge against Lassic, a quest she is soon joined on by the warrior Odin, the psyker Noah, and the cuddly cat thingy Myah.

Continue reading “I’m a Phan of Their Old Stuff…”

Silent Hill’s Sequel Nightmare

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In my restless dreams, I see that town: Silent Hill. Konami promised they’d take us there again some day, but they never did – at least, not in the company of Team Silent, the tour guides fans of the series had become accustomed to over the course of the first four games of the series. There’s been four new additions to the main series (where I define main series as “games which have seen release on home consoles rather than being mobile gaming or handheld exclusives”) since the demise of Team Silent in the muddled mess of The Room, and none of them have really won over the hearts and minds of fans. Is this a case of fandom being too hostile to the idea of new developers refreshing and putting a new spin on the series, or is this a genuine problem Konami are having with finding a safe pair of hands to bring the series forwards? Nothing for it but to ignore the warnings of others (because what sort of shitty horror protagonist would I be if I heeded warnings?) and head back to town.

Continue reading “Silent Hill’s Sequel Nightmare”

A Pocketful of Bloodshed

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

If God of War: Chains of Olympus had come out on the PS2, like the original game, it would have been a massive disappointment. The graphics are of a similar standard, and show as much visual imagination as the original game. The plot, likewise shows a similar capacity for completely mutilating Greek myth in a way which actually feels right even though it’s clearly wrong – as though these could be little details from Greek myth, even though they absolutely aren’t. The combat is more or less the same, the magic system is a bit easier to handle.

Except, at the same time, there isn’t really very much of an advancement over the original game. The combat is exactly the same, without much in the way of new tricks. Major battles and stunts are peppered with the same sort of quick-time events. It’s a prequel which doesn’t really shine that much of a light on Kratos’s past. The simplification of the magic system is achieved by stripping it down and making it less interesting. And it’s actually quite short.

There is one thing which makes virtues of all of these flaws, and which makes Chains of Olympus an excellent pick – it’s a PSP game.

Continue reading “A Pocketful of Bloodshed”

Grind Them To Dust With Your Bare Hands

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The current kings of the handheld gaming arena, the Nintendo DS and the PSP, both enjoy a potent and powerful advantage over their predecessors, and that is that they were designed by people who understand that it’s often necessary to stop playing games and go and do other things. Thus, both can be placed in a state of dormancy at a moment’s notice. Close the lid on the DS, or briefly nudge the power switch on the PSP, and they’ll enter a state of peaceful dormancy; wake them up again, and you can pick up your game precisely from where you left off. This overdue liberation from the tyranny of save points is more than welcome – it means that the systems are perfect for playing on the train or bus, or whilst waiting for an appointment, or in other spare moments of the day. It means that there’s no excuse for paying more attention to your handheld console than to other people; “hang on, just let me save the game” doesn’t cut it. And it means that certain games, which might otherwise risk becoming repetitive and tedious to modern audiences, can enjoy a new leash of life.

Take the classic Japanese CRPG. Both the Nintendo DS and PSP have been host to a slew of remakes of classic games in the JRPG genre, and I suspect part of the reason is that, thanks to the way people approach the DS and PSP, the large amount of grinding many such games require doesn’t seem like so much of a burden as it might previously have. Sitting down in front of the TV, turning the PS2 or XBox 360 on, and spending the next few hours solidly murdering goblins to get my party up to a sufficient level to fight the next boss is something that, now that I’m no longer a full-time student, I’m increasingly less inclined to do; with gaming time more rationed than it used to be, if I’ve managed to set aside more than about half an hour to devote to a game then I want something to bloody happen in the game aside from a series of meaningless random encounters.

On the other hand, if I’m just fiddling with the DS for half an hour before going to sleep at night, then that’s a whole different story. In that case, the fact that I’ve spent the last three hours of game time doing exactly the same thing is less significant, because I don’t experience those three hours all at once. By breaking up the grinding into tiny, manageable chunks the portable format makes it digestible. The downside of this is that the plot can unfold at a comparatively glacial pace – on the other hand, I personally find that if the plot is decent, then if I have to wait longer to unlock the next part that makes the reward all the sweeter, whereas if the plot is rubbish it isn’t a great loss if the gameplay is good enough to make up for that. And if the gameplay is not good enough to make up for a lacklustre story, then I’m not likely to stick with the game very long anyway.

Continue reading “Grind Them To Dust With Your Bare Hands”