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The Spirit of ‘Final Fantasy Tactics Advance’ Lives On In Canadian-Developed ‘Children of Zodiarcs’

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My tank is surrounded.

Two knights flank him, and a spellcaster is perched on a nearby roof. I play out the next few turns in my head. Based on possible enemy attacks with this specific arrangement of hostile units, I assess the risks behind staying in place. A sniper is close; they’ll have my tank in their sights after the next turn.

I settle on using my tank as bait to keep enemy placement concentrated. Instead of running, he’ll buff himself, top off his health, and hunker down.

Now to calculate damage. My rogue can stealth in closer. Ideally the tank will hold their attention. But, in the likely scenario that the one knight my rogue is in range of decides to attack her, she can shrug it off.

My mage, on the other hand is a glass cannon. She plays a dangerous balancing act of dealing out high bursts of damage and trying to not get knocked out in two hits. This is a setup turn for her; get her in closer, but out of range, and prep ahead. Or should I risk it and try and get in range to debuff the enemies? Could the tank block movement well enough where she isn’t at risk? Will that help the tank survive?

Thirty minutes and dozens of imagined scenarios later, I end my turn. My plan unfolds over the next few turns in a glorious symphony of prediction, combos, and a smattering of luck. Ten-year-old me grins ecstatically.

A frazzled 10 year old boy explains his video game strategy, ca. 2003

For a child like myself who was either frequently on the move or busy coming up with different ways to sprawl himself along the length of the couch, the Gameboy Advance existed as an extension of my body. My library consisted of staples like Mario, Zelda, and even more esoteric ones like Boktai. But as time went on, only Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Tactics Advance had the staying power and replayability to consistently find itself in my GBA.

Gorgeous painted aesthetic, ornate armor, and ridiculous hair. Yep, this is a Square game.

FFTA was my gateway into the wonderfully frustrating world of SRPGs and Tactics games. Shining Force, Fire Emblem, and Western titles like XCOM scratch this itch of chess-like strategizing blended with video game mechanics like items, skills, and leveling up. Tactics and SRPG games tend to be turn-based and utilize a grid/hex-based movement system with specialized units or classes that can move and act in discrete increments. Combat takes place on maps where the objective (or one of them) is usually to eliminate the enemy units. The genre focuses on strategy and planning ahead, so players spending inordinate amounts of time mulling over every possible situation is a common occurrence (as is the player turning into a frothing, raving mess when they see their plan fall apart during the enemy’s turn).

This makes sense in context, I swear.

FFTA is by no means the best or most nuanced the SRPG genre has to offer. Its predecessor, Final Fantasy Tactics for the PS1, can claim greater depth, customization, and arguably a more fleshed out narrative. Disgaea, pictured above, is notorious for its complex gameplay. But it is precisely because FFTA was a more streamlined experience that it continues to hold a special place in my heart.

There is something to be said for stylized simplicity, a design notion that functions as a unifying thread tying together all aspects of FFTA. The story is a charming fantasy adventure, the mechanics are straightforward but deep enough to offer a hefty amount of strategy and replayability, and the pixel sprites, isometric environments, and GBA soundfont mix together in a gorgeously simplistic blend.

Simple and clean.

So where did the genre go from there? There were other SRPGs along the way, like Luminous Arc, Disgaea, and Stella Glow but they were all more or less repeats of the same formula. Western devs would carve out their own niche with games like XCOM and Banner Saga, but it was in 2016 a certain Kickstarter campaign caught my eye. It touted itself as a game that aspired to follow in the footsteps of well established Japanese Tactics games. The devs drew distinct lines to beloved titles that many gamers have clear thoughts and opinions about. I was intrigued enough to back the project and the very next year Children of Zodiarcs released to the world at large.

There are a lot of Kickstarter horror stories out there. Thankfully, Children of Zodiarcs is not one of them.

CoZ, developed by Montreal-based team ‘Cardboard Utopia’, does exactly what it advertised: offers a game inspired by Japanese Tactics and SRPG classics. To what effect is up for debate, but what is interesting is how it approaches this concept of player agency and how it does so differently from the games it draws inspiration from. CoZ is a unique blend of Japanese gameplay retooled with Western sensibilities.

SRPGs: now with 30% less numbers!

Before we delve in further, it is important to establish what exactly I mean by “player agency”. It is this idea of how much control player has over the flow of the game and, to an extent, its narrative. In a game like Fallout or Mass Effect, the player has the freedom to make choices and they must deal with the consequences, good or bad. This can manifest in a number of different ways, from picking a hostile dialogue option with an NPC to specializing a character’s skills and abilities.

Player agency is an incredibly important aspect of good game design. Think about some of your favorite games. How did they allow you to make choices? Were they small choices like how your character moved or large ones like choosing factions to align with? Chances are, your favorite games gave you the opportunity to directly influence the world and how you engage with it, with the game responding in turn.

Imperial tax septims at work.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance offers player agency by creating freedom of choice in a multitude of different aspects, ranging from job/class development, item builds, missions, and even placing narrative landmarks. It does a wonderful job of giving the player a wide variety of small choices that add up to a surprisingly personal experience.

While the game does have a central narrative and cast, the bulk of the player’s fighting units will be random recruits with equally random names. By giving the player free reign over their classes, skills, items, and how they fit into the team, a personalized narrative forms organically. These recruits are far more than gussied up Mad-Libs. They live and die in battle. They score crits and misses. They clinch victories or sometimes bring you defeat. They’re your guildmates. Your comrades. Your friends.

Clan Nutsy rules, Clan Borzoi drools.

Children of Zodiarcs reworks the concept of player agency to create a more visceral immersion, as opposed to a narrative one. I had an interesting conversation at PAX with Jason Kim, the Creative Director for CoZ. He described how one of the team’s key design philosophies was capturing the highs and lows of playing a board game. CoZ replicates, to surprising effect, the feeling of immeasurable dread growing into glorious triumph (and vice-versa).

Pray to the gods of RNG.

I did some research on board games in Japan and curiously came up short. Unlike the West, which is experiencing a tabletop renaissance, Japan’s board game scene is limited. The benefit the developers of Children of Zodiarcs had in their design process was access to a culture heavily entrenched in this unique notion of experimenting with mechanics and rules. Nowhere is this more apparent than in tabletop games.

Board games have come a long way from Monopoly and Battleship. Games like Settlers of Catan and Pandemic herald a new generation of tabletop gaming where depth, experimentation, and innovation are the norm. Replayability and customization typically come into play through decks of cards and sets of dice; these game pieces can dictate units, abilities, or any number of game mechanics. The luck of the draw or roll can greatly affect future decisions, so strategic planning will usually involve mitigating randomness (RNG). Manipulating risk mitigation and RNG is equal parts tactical foresight and dangerous gambling. It is a core tenet of tabletop games that allows for intense gameplay experiences across a wide range of situations.

My friend, Michael, carefully considers his increasingly limited options (spoilers: I won).

Where FFTA allowed for comparatively deep customization, CoZ only gives the player two avenues for customization: the aforementioned dice and cards. Customization, while present, is not nearly as fleshed out as in other titles within the SRPG genre. The game limits the roster to a select group of individuals, and stats are practically non-existent in the game. There are no talents, classes, or passive skills. It’s as if someone took FFTA, an already streamlined SRPG, and streamlined it further.

On the flipside, what CoZ does brilliantly is replicating the feel and excitement of playing a board game. You have some leeway in choosing deck composition and crafting sides for your dice, two mechanics that play into this idea of mitigating risk and RNG. There’s something deeply satisfying about drawing a series of cards and rolling through a combo or hearing the clack of the dice as a wonderful mix of symbols signify that you are about to absolutely destroy your enemy, especially when it was the result of strategic foresight and planning. The elation in drawing a high-damage ability in the exact situation you need it or the seething rage from a stray die messing up your perfect roll are sentiments that CoZ expertly draws from tabletop gaming.  

Not pictured: the player fist pumping.

This is what I mean when I refer to Children of Zodiarcs shifting the player agency from narrative immersion to visceral immersion. Your decisions in-combat as the player consist of choosing which dice and cards to use and which two dice from any given roll you’d like to reroll. That’s it. By placing greater emphasis on how the player engages with the game, the CoZ devs succeed at capturing the emotional highs and lows that tabletop gaming offers. The genius at work here is the depth and time you can still spend parsing out the optimal strategies for you to take. Deck composition and dice crafting are relatively small adjustments that can greatly affect the likelihood of what you draw or roll. Risk and RNG mitigation is a simple game design concept that allows for a surprising amount of depth. Not to say that a game like FFTA didn’t have this, far from it. What I’m instead suggesting is that by presenting the player with a modular set of limited tools, their sense of play, strategy, and imagination are given free reign within relatively simple confines.

This is one sub-menu for one character in FFTA…

…and this is your whole party in CoZ. The menu doesn’t get much more in-depth than this, even after you progress.

To offer a similar analogy, compare and contrast the experiences of playing Hearthstone vs. playing Magic: The Gathering. MTG features a deep, faction-based library of cards that can result in exceedingly hefty and intricate decks and combos. Meanwhile, Hearthstone offers a streamlined collectible card game experience with fewer moving parts and more limits. By allowing the player to focus on fewer things, they can more quickly jump into a game and experience “Fun”.

The concept of “Fun” is an amorphous one, for which there is no right or wrong answer. “Fun” in a lot of these older Japanese SRPGs (and JRPGs to a greater extent) involves heavy micromanagement. Like playing MTG, there is most definitely fun to be found in these robust and complex game systems. But what Cardboard Utopia sought to accomplish in Children of Zodiarcs was to achieve this sense of fun that didn’t require excessive amounts of effort, while still capturing a sense of strategy and planning.

Do I wish I could see statistics and have greater control on the numbers? Sure. Is that what CoZ aims to do? Not at all. And that’s okay. I used the phrase “stylized simplicity” to describe FFTA in relation to its predecessor, Final Fantasy Tactics, and I’ll use it again to describe CoZ as it relates to FFTA.

“Arcadey” and “simple” are terms that may seem negative at first, but really all they are are different words to describe “fun”.

Edit: Because I was a dingus and forgot to post relevant links, here are relevant links.

Cardboard Utopia’s Website

CoZ’s Steam Page

Kyle grew up with a controller in one hand and a book in the other. He would've put something else in a third hand, but science isn't quite there yet. In the meantime, he makes do with watching things like television, film, and anime. He can be found posting ramblings on liketherogue.tumblr.com or trying to hop on the social media bandwagon @LikeTheRogue

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Kevin Foster

    September 25, 2017 at 11:01 am

    Check out Arcadian Atlas – http://store.steampowered.com/app/691790/Arcadian_Atlas/

    Also, would have been nice to have a link to the game’s website, Steam store page, etc in the article somewhere, unless I completely missed it somehow.

    • Kyle Rogacion

      September 25, 2017 at 1:27 pm

      Yesssss I’ve been following the AA devs on twitter!

      And I will totally add those links. Was thinking about it but thanks for bring it to my attention.

    • Akesycu

      September 25, 2017 at 11:49 pm

      hah nice one! I need that on mobile tho.

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Games

Microsoft Might be Ready to Dominate the Next Generation

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Microsoft Next Gen

Playing Catch-Up

As the current generation of consoles winds down in preparation for the transition to new hardware in 2020, it’s safe to say that Sony has come out on top through the past six years. While we don’t have Xbox sales numbers since Microsoft stopped releasing them earlier this generation, right from the console reveals the going has been rough for Xbox, and while the Xbox One family is by no means a failure it certainly isn’t on par with the PS4 in terms of success.

But the winds may be changing. Sony hasn’t made any major missteps à la Xbox’s showing at E3 2013, but Microsoft has been taking recent steps to make the choice between the two console manufacturers more and more difficult. Without further ado, let’s look at what might give Xbox the edge in 2020 and beyond.

Xbox Game Pass and Project xCloud

Arguably the most enticing reason to own an Xbox today, particularly if you don’t own a gaming PC, is Xbox Game Pass. The subscription service gives users access to a catalogue of over 200 titles with games ranging from the first Xbox to the One with more being added regularly. Microsoft has even stated that every one of their first-party releases going forward will be available on Game Pass on release day, with the upcoming Gear 5 even releasing 3 days early for subscribers. At E3, Microsoft released Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, bundling together Game Pass for Xbox, Game Pass for PC, and Xbox Live Gold, and with it, there’s no question that it is the best-value games subscription service available today.

With such a large library of titles available for download, the subscription service completely outclasses Sony’s own, PS Now. Sony’s service touts streaming as its way to play (though recently has started allowing its PS4 games to be downloaded). But in case of streaming catches the mainstream quicker than expected, Microsoft is prepping their own streaming service, the mysterious Project xCloud. For now, much of the world (in particular, its bandwidth) isn’t quite up to the task to make streaming games, but Microsoft isn’t taking any chances on keeping up for the next generation.

Games with Gold reaches parity with PS Plus

For years, Sony’s PlayStation Plus appeared to consistently beat out Microsoft’s Games with Gold month-to-month, especially considering PS Plus offered more titles every month. Since the launch of the PS4, Sony’s online service had included not only two free PS4 games every month, but also PS3 and PS Vita titles. But last March, Sony announced a sizeable shake-up to the service by way of axing the monthly PS3 and Vita offerings, and this March they followed through, with only two PS4 titles now available each month.

Many had hoped Sony would quickly up the number of PS4 games given monthly, or that the reduction in the number of games would mean a large increase in the quality of the two PS4 games each month. Sadly, neither of these seem to have come to pass. Games with Gold, on the other hand, still releases two Xbox One games and an Xbox 360 title every month.

The release of the next consoles will likely see some changes to the makeup of the monthly PS Plus and Xbox Live Gold lineups, but for now, Microsoft holds at least a slight advantage after PS Plus having the edge for most of the generation.

Recent Studio Acquisitions

In this day and age, it shouldn’t be controversial to say that the PS4 has better exclusives than the Xbox One. Unless you’re a diehard Halo or Gears fan, it’s difficult to resist brilliant Sony exclusives like Uncharted, God of War, Spider-Man, and Bloodborne, to name just a few.

Microsoft seems to have recognized this and have been reacting by purchasing some major studios. Double Fine, Ninja Theory, Obsidian, and more have been acquired by Microsoft over the past few years. Sony still appears to have more and better-announced exclusives for the near future (The Last of Us Part 2, Ghost of Tsushima, etc.), but in the next year or two, we should expect a pretty massive explosion of announcements and releases from Microsoft as their new studios kick into gear.

PC Compatibility

The Xbox Play Anywhere program launched in 2016, allowing players to purchase participating games for either Xbox One or Window 10 and to receive copies for both platforms. Play Anywhere titles share progress and achievements and often support cross-play. The program is part of Microsoft’s hope to more closely integrate Xbox with PC, and could reasonably result in PC players to purchase an Xbox by easing them in with a preexisting library of their own games.

Also in their bid for more PC players, Microsoft has begun moving away from the oft-maligned Microsoft Store. Rather than attempting to salvage the store and turn it into something more welcoming for gamers, they launched a totally new Xbox app at E3 2019 alongside Xbox Game Pass PC. The app lets players access their games library, Game Pass, and a store for games, thankfully cutting out the need for the unwieldy Microsoft Store when it comes to buying and playing.

Just because Sony is on top right now, doesn’t mean they will continue to be in the era of the PS5 and Project Scarlett. We’ve seen the big dog fall before, with the Xbox 360 holding the upper hand over the PS3 throughout last gen. And Microsoft has been doing a number of things right over the past few years, to the point where it looks as if they really could have a shot at being the dominant player in the next generation of consoles.

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Games

10 Years Later: ‘Batman: Arkham Asylum’ Is Still The Apex of Comic Book Video Games

Batman: Arkham Asylum was the twenty-first-century masterpiece that revolutionized the video game adaptation genre through its phenomenal voice cast, character diversity, challenging detective work, and gothic setpieces.

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“Ah, it’s always nice to return to my sweet little ha-ha-hacienda.”

When diving through the deep rabbit hole that is comic book video game adaptations, finding something above decent can be quite troublesome. The Batman license has been used to create video games based off of its various forms of entertainment media since the early days of the Amstrad Colour Personal Computer, however, the caped crusader could never exactly crack the case on how to make the perfect video game adaptation- then again, neither could any other superhero. It was not until Eidos Interactive obtained the license to the Batman franchise in 2007, where the pinnacle point of comic book video games would be created under the roof of British developer Rocksteady Studios. 

Batman: Arkham Asylum was the twenty-first-century masterpiece that revolutionized the video game adaptation genre through its phenomenal voice cast, character diversity, challenging detective work, and gothic setpieces that shined as if they were oozing out of the pages of a fresh official DC Comics graphic novel. Although it has been ten years since its original release on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC, Arkham Asylum still stands the test of time as not only one of the best comic book video games to date but as one of the best video games ever created.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

The story begins as Batman rushes to Gotham’s insane asylum in the batmobile while an uninjured, hand-cuffed, cackling Joker rides shotgun. Shortly after our hero meets up with Commissioner James Gordon and Warden Quincy Sharp, the Joker begins the first phase of his big homecoming trap by escaping custody through the help of Harley Quinn. Throughout the game, players are tasked with re-establishing order over the out of control island by infiltrating its various districts, saving allies, and taking down a top tier rogue that resides inside each building one by one.

While the plot may seem like your ordinary comicbook one-shot, the writing of Arkham Asylum is a storytelling work of art. Characters constantly bicker and banter to each other through words penned by none other than legendary Batman writer Paul Dini; creator of the critically acclaimed Batman The Animated Series and comics such as Dark Night: A True Batman Story and Batman: Harley Quinn. Every character talks and acts as if they were pulled directly from the source material — just as they should due to Dini’s impeccable recurring work on the franchise. 

To further emphasize creating an authentic recreation of Batman’s world, Rocksteady worked tirelessly to bring back fan-favorite recognizable voice actors for the majority of the characters who had been previously featured in Dini’s work such as Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as the Joker, and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. The combination of both Dini and the outstanding voice cast culminate into what is often viewed today as the definitive interpretation of the world’s greatest detective. 

Batman: Arkham Asylum

The characters are what became the defining aspect of Arkham Asylum and the most notable talking point by critics at the time of its release. As the game consistently jumps from villain to villain through its more than stellar pacing, nothing ever seems to grow stale. While the main heroes such as Batman, Gordon, and Oracle are always a pleasure to listen to, the rogues are the true stars of the show. Characters like the Joker, Scarecrow, Killer Croc, and Poison Ivy never disappoint. Each villain brings surprising throw downs to the table, leaving players to truly test their skill-sets against Gotham’s finest. It was always — and still is — a thrilling experience to see who you will have to go toe to toe with next, as you experiment with different mechanics to defeat each boss.

Whereas all Batman games before Arkham Asylum had a strong emphasis on fighting, Rocksteady decided to shift its gameplay focus on a variety of playstyles to both accommodate for the detective’s vast set of expertise while also remaining true to the character originally depicted in print. Calculated quick-stealth action combat with added forensic science work used to solve puzzles became the groundwork for Batman: Arkham Asylum and the future of the series on top of its already compact control scheme. 

Every gameplay feature did not come with one singular purpose; the core mechanics were built on a multi-functional philosophy that would constantly test players to improve their skills, while also finding various ways to utilize their arsenal. Combat and puzzle-solving became intertwined, leaving players with more than one route on how they choose to approach any given situation.

For example, the new ‘detective mode’ feature allowed Batman: Arkham Asylum to open a floodgate of strategic play-styles and genre variations through the eyes of Batman. A simple game mechanic that changed the view of your surroundings to a wireframed breakdown would serve three main purposes; planning well thought out infiltrations, solving mysteries, and providing an in-game hinting system that could guide players through the asylum. The same can be said for gadgets — such as the Batarang and explosive gel — as they are given to the player for puzzles, but those who experimented while fighting found these tools had multiple purposes.

For those looking to explore deeper into Batman lore, the Riddler provided hundreds of different easter eggs for players to find through his cryptic enigma challenges. Longtime comic fans may be able to solve these puzzles with ease, but for casual audiences, these challenges can often be teeth grinding without background knowledge of what you may need to look out for. The mere text print bios, patient interview tapes, and art cards awarded through finding Riddler trophies and scanning objects associated with riddles made the game’s world seem enormous, as the majority of the characters referenced in these rewards are never present in the flesh. Batman’s world kept growing the deeper a player investigated into the growing crevasse that was Riddler’s optional story arc.

While the game blew away expectations with its extensive gameplay and faithful characters, the most important piece of any Batman media is the look; that mesmerizing gritty atmosphere only Batman comics can present. The character’s world has always been attached to a stylized look that resembles the art-deco years blended with dark noir and realism. It is a recognizable feature that makes the character’s world design stand apart from anyone else in the business. Arkham Asylum flawlessly recreated the look of the modern Batman comics through its heavily inspired gothic imagery with contrasting colors that instinctively pop leaving characters and environments looking prominent from one another. Typically, games that take a more ‘realistic’ approach do not age well, but the entire Arkham series still holds up due to its timeless art style, one that is incomparable to any other game to this day.

Batman: Arkham Asylum will forever stand as one of the most impactful games of its century for redefining what it meant to be an adaptation. It was thanks to the outstanding work Rocksteady Studios put into a faithful recreation of the dark knight that allowed developers to pave the way for a future of video games featuring comic book characters on par with the quality of major triple-A title releases. Batman has always redefined entertainment media in various aspects, but he may never have had an impact quite as unappreciated as Arkham Asylum on the industry. The caped crusader once again revived the feeling of hope, but this time for a medium of gaming that seemingly was going nowhere at the time. The dark knight led the charge to the era of the golden age of comic book games. “Long Live The Bat.”

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Games

25 Years Later: ‘EarthBound’ Continues to Bring Smiles and Tears

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“I Miss You.”

Nearly unrecognized by a company, almost canceled multiple times, saved by an industry icon, a soundtrack present in children’s textbooks, a passionate fanbase, fan-translations for the unreleased entries in the west, a Super Smash Bros. presence, and a three-sixty of a legacy. EarthBound– or rather the Mother series in Japan- has by far one of the strangest yet most fascinating histories out of all of Nintendo’s most known series.

EarthBound went on to become a cult classic in Nintendo’s history and one of the most renowned games of the fourth console generation for Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Through its troubled history in both production and early reception, it still has withstood the test of time to go on as one of Nintendo’s underdog franchises created by the mastermind Japanese copywriter, director, game designer, and actor Shigesato Itoi.

What better time to look back on the games strikingly different legacies across the globe than on the day of its initial Japanese release 25 years ago today. Despite EarthBound being looked upon as one of the greatest role-playing-games today, you would be surprised over how different the game was viewed back in 1994.

Itoi’s Saving Grace

After the completion of Mother in 1989- known to players as EarthBound Beginnings outside of Japan today- Shigesato Itoi began working on a direct sequel to the surprise phenomenon for the next generation of Nintendo hardware. Rather than working with the same development team, however, Itoi decided to allow Ape Incorporated to solely work on the project; a decision that would later lead to an unforeseeable disaster spanning over the course of five years.

Itoi was under significant pressure from Nintendo in 1993 due to time constraints and funding for Earthbound falling through on multiple occasions over the last four years. EarthBound escaped cancellation by the skin of its teeth several times throughout development. Out of fear of a final cancellation, Itoi knew he needed help from an outside source who can help save the project. In the last resort ditch, he took a trip to HAL Laboratory seeking out the starman of the industry; a close friend, young breakthrough coder, and President of the company, Satoru Iwata.

Shigesato Itoi, Satoru Iwata, and Shigeru Miyamoto- December 2011.

Satoru Iwata meticulously analyzed the coding of the game and gave the team at Ape Inc. two options; take what they had and finish development in two years or start from scratch and finish in six months- the ladder was the only plausible option for Itoi to choose. Iwata and his colleagues at HAL mustered up tools that Ape Inc. could use to finish the game in his predicted time frame; to which they did and less than one year later, EarthBound was ready to hit store shelves and became the first entry in the Mother series to make land outside of its home turf.

A Different Past

During its initial release, EarthBound was met with mixed to favorable reception outside of Japan and did not make sales expectations with the higher-ups at Nintendo. Although certainly not a flop, the game was deemed unsuccessful by the publisher everywhere but Japan. Critics in the west often compared the game to several other RPGs released at the time- specifically Square’s acclaimed Final Fantasy III– citing that the game felt dated compared to what the hardware was capable of. Back on its home turf, the game went on to receive a mostly positive reception. EarthBound and Mother 2 were practically two separate entities in the east and west.

Even in its marketing, EarthBound was a whole different kind of weird depending on territory. Nintendo of America gave the franchise its bizarre and infamously known marketing campaign in the United States, however, in its home territory, the Mother series was advertised as a family-friendly game that was for everyone. The line “this game stinks” was heavily used in Nintendo Power Magazine along with several attached repulsive-smelling scratch and sniff cards. Meanwhile, in Japan, phrases such as “for adults, children, and even young women” were often used in live-action advertisements along with friendlier simplistic informational posters such as the one below.

Going Contemporary

Unlike the majority of other RPGs at the time that focused on the common fantasy and medieval settings, EarthBound took a major curveball and placed itself in a relatable modern American themed country called Eagleland where rather than characters wielding blades or firearms, weapons consist of baseball bats, slingshots, PSI, bottle rockets, and frying pans. Convenience stores and hospitals are used rather than your typical wandering merchants or magic users. Enemies could range to anything from cars, speed limit signs, and clocks, to vomit, tents, and robots. Even a genre staple such as the battle system remains consistently different from any other RPG. The game uses a ‘slot machine’ health and psychic points mechanic where your numbers roll down slowly as you attempt to counterattack, revive, and defend with quick thinking moves before the digits can hit zero.

The contemporary inspired atmosphere blended with fantasy elements is a setting that no other game has tried to exactly replicate. It is still one of EarthBound’s most unique aspects, however, what makes the game so memorable are the characters placed in the deranged setting. Every single entity you come across on your adventure has unique dialogue that can range from poetically charming to outrageously ridiculous. A fan favorite species that has gone on to become what can be considered the series mascots are the iconic Mr. Saturns; notably for being the face of much of the available merchandise through Itoi’s personal company in Japan, having a unique in-game text font, and appearing as an item in Super Smash Bros. series (starting with Melee on the Nintendo GameCube).

A Change In Legacy

Today EarthBound is a Nintendo cult classic. Did it fail to become part of the big leagues at the time of its release because of the puzzling advertisement campaign? Was it to out of the norm for the general public and mainstream media? We may never know the definitive answer, but today EarthBound is regarded as one of the greatest RPGs of all time and a must-play game for the Super Nintendo. In its 25 years since it first released, it certainly has managed to draw in a captivating legacy that has continually become more loved over time.

The Mother series- whether it will ever receive a new entry or not- lives on through its dedicated fans, spiritual successors, and digital re-releases. No matter where you scatter for EarthBound related content on the internet, you are bound to find some dedicated fans or even entire websites such as the widely known Starmen.net that are packed to the brim with fan content.

If you have never played EarthBound, it is currently available for purchase on the Wii U and 3DS Virtual Consoles and it is also one of the twenty-two pack-in games included on the Super Nintendo Classic Mini console.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 4 Review – “Faith”: A Journey Through Trump’s America

Life is Strange 2 continues its strong trajectory from the previous episode, weaving a complex and troubling tale of faith gone mad.

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Life is Strange 2 has returned for its penultimate episode, a dense and troubling exploration of faith, prejudice and family in a time and place that has never been more divided: modern America. Following the events of Life is Strange 2‘s stellar third entryEpisode 4: “Faith” sees Sean attempting to pick up the pieces of his shattered life after Daniel’s violent outburst at Merrill’s farm.

Though the story of Faith” begins in a hospital, with Sean working to recover from his injuries, the trajectory of the tale explores more settings and environments than any previous episode of the series. From wandering the highways of Nevada, to exploring a dusty motel, to sneaking into a remote church, Life is Strange 2‘s 4th entry never lacks for something new to see, or someone new to interact with.

Life is Strange 2
However, the cynical bent of the story is the new centerpiece of Episode 4. Though Life is Strange 2 has never sidestepped the controversy and division of Trump’s America, Faith” leans into these ideas with renewed fervor. Violence is committed more than once against our Mexican protagonist, and his skin color often sees him at odds with the more conservative denizens of the highways he journeys down. In a particularly telling exchange, Sean even finds himself beaten and placed on the other side of a closed compound, with a gun-toting guard glaring at him from the other side. Metaphors don’t really get much clearer than that.

This will, no doubt, lead to more calls of keeping politics out of games and other entertainment by the president’s more ardent supporters, but as other writers have pointed out, gaming has never been apolitical. Further, it would be categorically irresponsible to tell a story like this without addressing the elephant in the room. With these elements in mind, the politics of Life is Strange 2 have never been clearer than in Episode 4: “Faith”, and they account for some of the strongest storytelling fuel the series has found yet.

Life Is Strange 2, Episode 4: Faith
Politics aside, Life is Strange 2 also puts Sean at a variety of other disadvantages. His starting injuries include a lost eye that must be tended to medically throughout the episode, and the various beatings he takes throughout Episode 4 more than leave their mark. This leaves Faith as the typical darkest, and most troubling, episode of this second series, where we find our protagonist at his absolute lowest point, and must continue on with him in hopes of finding a better future. It’s a common enough trope, but one that is used to great effect here.

There are many returns of characters from previous episodes, some through letters and other communications, and others through surprising reveals and revelations. A particularly shocking character joins the story with zero preamble, and emerges as one of Life is Strange 2‘s finest editions yet. To spoil who, or how, would be criminal, but rest assured that Episode 4 is more full of surprises than any of the previous entries.

Life Is Strange 2, Episode 4: Faith
Though the main conflict that eventually reveals itself, that of Daniel being used as a messianic figure for an isolated Nevada church, feels contrived initially, the layers that are eventually revealed, and Daniel’s reason for joining the church, make a lot of sense in the overall scheme of things. Due to this strength of narrative, it really feels like all bets are off during the climax of Life is Strange 2: Episode 4, and that’s a good thing for a game so centered around the notion of interactive storytelling.

Fresh, prescient, and altogether rewarding, Life is Strange 2: Episode 4 — “Faith”, is a welcome piece of fiction in a society that has become so increasingly fragmented. It illustrates the horrors of the modern American landscape, but always remembers to remind us that there are good people out there, even when hope has never seemed so far away.

Strongly Recommended

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Games

I Still Don’t Understand ‘Death Stranding’ (and That’s a Good Thing)

Death Stranding could create an experience unlike any game before it, and while I can’t claim to understand it, I’m certainly excited for it.

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It may only be a few months until launch, but Death Stranding remains shrouded in mystery. This first independent project from gaming auteur Hideo Kojima has been an enigma ever since it was first announced. When the world first saw Norman Reedus standing on a foggy shoreline with a weeping fetus in his arms, many questions naturally arose. Why is a celebrity actor cradling an unborn child on a beach? What kind of gameplay could we expect from this? And what does “Death Stranding” even mean, anyway?

Years may have passed since that initial reveal, but in my view at least, these questions still haven’t been fully answered. I simply do not understand Death Stranding. It’s confounded me like few games before it have – and yet, that may be the very best thing about it. There’s something enticing about that mystery. Death Stranding could create an experience unlike any game before it, and while I can’t claim to understand it, I’m certainly excited for it.

Between trailers, interviews, and a fairly hefty amount of gameplay footage, there’s been an increasingly constant stream of information about Death Stranding for over a year now. This is especially true at Gamescom 2019, where the game has had an extensive presence with two full trailers and a live gameplay demonstration. For most games, this extensive amount of coverage should eliminate all the biggest questions, presenting a relatively clear idea of what the final product should be. But consider the content of Death Stranding’s most recent trailers: one consists entirely of an exposition dump about the power and proper maintenance of jarred fetuses, while another opens with Norman Reedus urinating in a field to create a giant mushroom before dropping off a package for Geoff Keighley. Previous trailers show ruined cities overflowing with tar, gold-masked lion monsters, and levitating shadow creatures. If you can make heads or tails of all that, then you’re certainly cleverer than I.

With every new piece of information, I find it more difficult to wrap my head around the game. Even with the few concrete details known about it, Death Stranding continues to defy simple categorization. Although it features stealth elements, it certainly doesn’t seem like another Metal Gear; while it will have a massive open world, it doesn’t look like it will follow in the footsteps of signature modern open worlds like Horizon Zero Dawn or Breath of the Wild; and though it tells a story about reconnecting the broken cities of a post-apocalyptic United States, its mixture of stealth, politics, and the supernatural make it distinct from most other narrative-focused games out there. Each trailer introduces another wrinkle to the perplexing web of Kojima’s latest vision.

It is this very ambiguity that makes Death Stranding so enticing. With most games, it’s easy to understand them based on a quick glance at their trailer alone. This will reveal their genre, their personality, any unique gimmicks – all the usual culprits. But with Death Stranding, the more we learn about it, the more the mystery grows. At this point, it’s even difficult to pin the game into a single genre. Only the most ambitious games manage to create genres of their own, but from what we’ve seen so far, Death Stranding looks like it could be one of them. It could simply be little more than excellent marketing, but knowing that Kojima’s unbridled imagination is behind it, my hopes are high.

Death Stranding

It would make sense for Death Stranding to be so inventive given the circumstances behind its creation. For years, Kojima’s corporate overlords at Konami had stifled his creativity as they moved the company’s focus away from Kojima’s traditional titles like Metal Gear and Silent Hill towards more immediately lucrative pursuits such as mobile platforms and pachinko machines. Now that Kojima has freed himself from those restrictions and formed an independent studio of his own, his vision can run more freely than ever before. It’s to be expected that, finally presented with the opportunity to fully express his vision, he’d do so by creating something truly daring, something never seen before.

Of course, as attractive as the intrigue around Death Stranding may be, it doesn’t change that it’s difficult to really judge a game without knowing much about it at all. With so many important details remaining unspecified, there’s no telling whether Death Stranding will actually achieve its clear ambitions. If I were to view things pessimistically, I’d posit that the game’s ambiguity could be nothing more than an elaborate marketing scheme meant to mask the lackluster game beneath it. While I’m certainly much more optimistic about the game than that, I can’t deny the very real possibility that it could be the case.

But at the end of the day, I simply cannot resist the romantic allure of a game so surrounded by mystery. The core of Death Stranding may be wrapped in an inscrutable fog, but Kojima uses this layer of secrecy to invite players to experience a game that is truly new, an all-too-rare commodity in games today. Kojima hasn’t been free to express his vision so fully for years now, but at long last he has his chance. I cannot comprehend Death Stranding, and that’s exactly why I’m so excited for it.

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Freelance Film Writers

Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.

Contact us: Editor@GoombaStomp.com

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