Retrospectives

Golden Sun (2001)

Golden Sun (2001)

The bucolic town of Vale, populated by ordinary-looking human sorcerers called Adepts, is rather unfortunately situated on the slopes of an active volcano. In the game’s opening scenes we are proffered the impression that it is about to erupt, and a pair of teenagers by the names of Isaac, a frail blonde kid, and his burly companion Garet scramble out of harm’s way and evacuate to a safe haven. From thereon, a grand adventure ensues in Camelot’s Golden Sun for GameBoy Advance.

Continue reading →

Posted by ChronoCritic in Retrospectives
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)

It is a good time for the Force to be with you. Episode VII The Force Awakens has blown satisfying new life into the movie franchise, blotting Jar-Jar-infested prequels out of our memories. Equally, the progress that Apeiron is making on a reboot of the original go-to Star Wars gaming experience, 2003 Bioware-epic Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), has this Padawan dancing little jigs in his living room.

To be sure, rumours of an official KOTOR re-release are never far away, which, if realised, may take the wind from Apeiron’s sails. And the usual disclaimer applies to crowdsourced projects – there is no guarantee that KOTOR: Apeiron will come to fruition, or that it won’t find legal hurdles thrown up by franchise-owners as it marches down the long road to completion.

Yet we may hope that progress is swift and unobstructed. While there is not much to go on at this stage – little is known about the ‘new worlds, missions, HUD, inventory, items, and companions’ Apeiron promises – the project images appearing on Apeiron’s Twitter page, showing off beloved, visually stunning environments in an updated game engine, merit excitement. (Will Sleheyron, the lava world cut from the original, finally make an appearance?)

But for the hype building around KOTOR 2.0, let’s pause for a moment. Can a re-release realistically live up to the expectations inspired by the demi-mythical status of the original? Will a visual dusting off and repackaging do the trick, or has time eaten away at the appeal of KOTOR’s fundamentals, making what once shone now bland? To put it bluntly – is Apeiron’s effort a fool’s errand?

The surest way to find out, one would think, is to dive back into the original KOTOR and identify what has aged and what is timeless, what holds up and what crashes down, hoping to pinpoint necessary tweaks to return a matte KOTOR-gem back into a lushly shining jewel. Having embarked on precisely this mission, you can find the report below.

Continue reading →

Posted by ChronoCritic in Retrospectives
Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town (2003)

Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town (2003)

Ambivalence is the keyword in articulating how I feel about Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. On the one hand I’m disappointed by its vicious insistence on making life unnecessarily difficult for the player. But another, more placid part of me is able to look past this impudence and celebrate it for the innovations that pushed the boundaries of the farming / social sim genres and raised their mass market appeal. Even so, milestone accomplishments don’t always age well and it’s one of life’s inescapable ironies that Friends of Mineral Town’s very responsibility for the success of RPG farming sims has since sparked competitors that have fine-tuned its ideas and execution so that it now feels antiquated. (It’s the Nokia 3310 all over again.)

Friends of Mineral Town (FoMT) is popularly seen as high-water mark for Harvest Moon; the last of the classics before a quality decline took hold that goaded the series to oblivion’s edge. FoMT innovated on Harvest Moon 1-3 for GameBoy (Color) by expanding the social experience and fuelling collectionist impulses – features that that would become staples for the genre at large. Yet in hindsight it’s also evident that the full potential of these ideas is not realised in FoMT, which is rightfully remembered better for force of concept than infallible implementation. That’s okay though, for it’s not at all fair to hold Friends of Mineral Town to the exacting standards of modern behemoths even though doing so helpfully puts the spotlight on its shortcomings and untapped potential (so we’ll do it anyway – the world isn’t fair!).

What’s patently not okay are the problems uniquely, and avoidably, its own. The early-game in particular buckles under singularly frustrating design decisions that play keep-away with the classic Harvest Moon experience for a good many hours. I’d hazard that these initial layers of ‘this sucks’ are stacked sufficiently high that they’ll repel less persistent players before the game finally opens up and becomes modestly enjoyable – for a while. And for that, the graying hair is no excuse.

Continue reading →

Posted by ChronoCritic in Retrospectives
Final Fantasy V (1992)

Final Fantasy V (1992)

Final Fantasy V: the Super Nintendo game that never was. At least not in North America and Europe. Fretting that the title’s unprecedented mechanical complexity might alienate Western audiences, developer Square postponed the game’s global release, thereby confining Bartz, Lenna, Galuf and Faris to the Japanese islands until the 5th anniversary of their adventure.

In the gaming hive-mind, Final Fantasy V (FFV) is remembered for dust-binning the preset, immutable character classes that had hitherto dominated role-playing adventures. Instead, FFV pivoted on a system of “jobs” – or interchangeable character specialisations – to reinvigorate an ageing and increasingly stale turn-based combat formula. Featuring a total of 22 specialisations, from Dragoon to Summoner to Dancer, all with special abilities transferable between classes, FFV permitted an outrageous level of character customisation for the era.1 This daring formula hit the ground running in Japan, where Final Fantasy V sold over two million copies.

In the collective consciousness of history, however, Final Fantasy V’s status is closer to forgotten middle child sandwiched between the stately FFIV and surrealist juggernaut FFVI, and seldom celebrated as milestone accomplishment in its own right  It’s not difficult to discern multiple causes. First, FFV’s want of a Western release restricted global engagement with the game to eyeballing glossy screencaps in gaming digests. It’s hard to don nostalgia-tinted glasses for a game you’ve never played. Moreover, successive Final Fantasy titles shelved the fine-tuned freedoms of character specialisation, removing the possibility for throwback and hurting any immediate legacy FFV might have had. For over a decade, then, FFV remained an oddball package of RPG experimentality, a relic of an era when developer budgets were smaller and studios bolder.

Neither of those factors are nails in the coffin of enduring popularity, though. Mother 3 never saw a Western release, but nonetheless sports a cult following to rival any Tim Schafer adventure game. And the Tactics Ogre-series only forayed into grand strategy once with March of the Black Queen, yet we regard that title with unfailing reverence. No, I think the fundamental reason why even today Final Fantasy V is not held in remotely equal esteem to its bookend siblings2 despite multiple re-releases in English is because – for all its mechanical prowess – FFV‘s storytelling is simply abysmal. From the crude presentation of its central conflict to bland personalities to an unsatisfyingly shallow wonderland, Final Fantasy V executes its narrative and creative beats in remarkably primitive fashion, sadly devaluing the entire experience.
Continue reading →

  1. Technically speaking, FFV took a leaf out of Final Fantasy III‘s book for NES, which had already experimented with interchangeable professions, albeit to limited scope and mixed success.
  2. Although FFV recently caught the eye of Kotaku’s Jason’s Schreier, who gave it a little bit of overdue love.
Posted by ChronoCritic in Retrospectives
Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones (2005)

Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones (2005)

All the best RPGs play their storyline cards close to their chest, going to great lengths to craft and sustain a visceral sense of mystery and wonder while you attempt to discover your identity, your purpose, and the inevitable obstacles that will stand in your way. Fire Emblem: the Sacred Stones, on the other hand, dispenses with any and all stage-setting intrigue to instead make the collectivity of its introductions in a great hurry. Upon hitting the START-button, Sacred Stones spits out an intricate world history that reads like a two-sheet synopsis of a 600-page Game of Thrones novel, and crosses its fingers that you’ll be enthralled by the overwhelming wealth of up-front exposition that, I guarantee, you’ll struggle to remember. I wasn’t, and sadly, things never really got better.

Continue reading →

Posted by ChronoCritic in Retrospectives
Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising (2003)

Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising (2003)

Have you ever seen the box art that Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising shipped with? It features a towering figure whose countenance is encapsulated by a bizarre crossover between a samurai mask and a police hat – the combination of which is strangely reminiscent of Darth Vader’s breathing apparatus. It’s a little peculiar that this imitator should feature so prominently on the packaging, too, for he is at best the game’s invisible shadow puppeteer, not main-stage villain.

Anyway, Black Hole Rising is the second instalment in the now-dormant Advance Wars series. It retained its prequel’s kindergarten-depth, cookie-cutter story to glue together a few dozen hours of toony, tactical war-themed gameplay – and then took that gameplay and cranked up the difficulty to 11. For novelty a new unit type was thrown in and the roster of Commanding Officers (or COs) enlarged with fresh faces. Otherwise, though, Advance Wars 2 (AW2) played it exceptionally safe. Normally, I’d withhold brownie points for a failure to innovate on an established formula, but given how well both AW1 and AW2 played and the poor design choices evident from NDS Dual Strike onwards, that sameness may be a blessing in disguise.

Continue reading →

Posted by ChronoCritic in Retrospectives
Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis (2001)

Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis (2001)

Have you played Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis, the acclaimed strategy RPG from Quest? Chances are you’ve never come across it – Knight of Lodis (or KoL for short) was obscure in the West even on release. Incidentally, this rarity now puts it among the most expensive Gameboy Advance (GBA) titles on the market. Original boxed copies are scarce – beware the plethora of knockoffs on Ebay! – and can sell for upwards of $150USD. Undershooting demand was somewhat of a mainstay for publisher Atlus, anyway: only 25,000 copies of KoL’s prequel, March of the Black Queen for SNES, found their way to the US in the mid-90s. And the price of those, well… Why don’t you see for yourself.

But I digress. Atlus truly did RPG fans a monumental disservice by opting for an abysmally small print run. In my book, Knight of Lodis is far more deserving of the GBA ‘tactics’ crown than Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (FFTA), the commonly considered rightful recipient. KoL’s niche status certainly didn’t do it any favours: I had to hunt far and wide to locate an isolated copy even in the early 2000s even as every kid in the neighbourhood seemed to have Montblanc hopping across the GBA’s dimly-lit screen. FFTA’s staying power has been greater, too; one only has to search YouTube for Let’s Plays to appreciate its enduring legacy.

Even so Knight of Lodis is an incredibly rich, engrossing experience that has withstood the test of time exceptionally well, and is frankly hands-down the superior game. Above all, the captivating, gritty realism of KoL’s intrigue-packed plot sustains the experience from start to finish and lends cohesion and gravitas to every mission. But mechanically Knight of Lodis excels too, as its combat mechanics are dynamic, intuitive and well-calibrated while class progression and character customisation are smooth and organic – a far-cry from, say, the FFTA Ability Point grindfest. Taken together, the game is hard to put down, even 15 years after release.

Continue reading →

Posted by ChronoCritic in Retrospectives