Retrospectives

Harvest Moon 3 (2001)

Harvest Moon 3 (2001)

Another Harvest Moon retrospective? Yes. It’s time.

Many moons (heh) ago, I played and reviewed Friends of Mineral Town (FoMT), and came away disillusioned. FoMT is on the books as a timeless classic, but… Then why didn’t I enjoy it? Had I outgrown Harvest Moon, period? Could even nostalgia no longer smooth over the experience? I had many fond memories playing the earliest Harvest Moons, and while part of me wanted to establish that I hadn’t played mindtricks on myself all these years, I was much too afraid to taint happy memories with modern skepticism, and chose to leave my Gameboy games alone. That is, until I decided to attempt some cartridge repairs, and while looking for spare parts stumbled upon Bokujou Monogatari GB3, my Japanese copy of Harvest Moon 3. Okay, universe. I read you loud and clear.

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Posted by ChronoCritic in Retrospectives
Pokémon Trading Card Game 2 (2001)

Pokémon Trading Card Game 2 (2001)

Can you recall any Pokémon video games that sold poorly? And I mean poorly. Hey You Pikachu (2000), that oddball virtual pet game for Nintendo 64, sold over 250,000 copies in Japan. That’s pretty good. Pokémon Snap (1999) sold half a million. Pokémon Pinball (1999) sold millions worldwide. The first Mystery Dungeon games received decidedly mixed critic reviews, but still sold over 1.4 million copies in Japan alone. The Pokémon brand name all but guarantees sales, no matter the product.

Then why, of all spin-offs, did Pokémon Trading Card Game 2: The Invasion of Team Great Rocket do so badly, coming in at less than 100,000 total copies sold – evidently not enough, in Nintendo’s mind, to justify a localisation? By way of benchmark, Konami shifted 1.6 million (!) combined copies of Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Monsters 4, another card battle title for Gameboy Color released around the same time as TCG2. Even the original Pokémon TCG game from 1999 did quite well, exceeding 600,000 sold in Japan alone, and another million-plus worldwide. But TCG2 is nowhere to be found on the 2001 charts for Japan. Surely it can’t be that bad, can it?

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Posted by ChronoCritic in Retrospectives
Yu-Gi-Oh! Dark Duel Stories (2002)

Yu-Gi-Oh! Dark Duel Stories (2002)

Dark Duel Stories came to us late. Very late. Japan got their Duel Monsters III in June 2000; North America received a localised version only in March 2002, and Europe not until March 2003 (!). And because of this time-lag, Dark Duel Stories (DDS) was a loveable yet goofy has-been game as soon as it hit the shelves.

Just released and already a thing of the past? How is that exactly? You see, every so often, the Yu-Gi-Oh Trading Card Game ruleset is rather comprehensively revised. Konami will do something like throwing out a rock-paper-scissors system of elemental weaknesses, or introduce a much expanded trap and magic zone, or completely rewrite the rules of monster effects, that sort of thing. (Or in recent years, develop summoning mechanics and interactions so complex that they require walls of fine print on each card.) Dark Duel Stories (DDS) – alongside four other GBC Yu-Gi-Oh that were never translated – was conceived prior to the codification of Yu-Gi-Oh 2.0.

In 2003, wanting to play the latest rules with the freshest cards, I was equal parts annoyed and bemused about the quirky package that was DDS. So many years on, I’m grateful that DDS made it to the West at all, for it survives as a pleasant historical oddity, a snapshot of an alpha stage in the cardgame’s evolution. Today, Dark Duel Stories is a time capsule to a primeval form of Yu-Gi-Oh, a tried, tested and ultimately abandoned set of ideas. It’s Yu-Gi-Oh, but it absolutely isn’t, and I love it.

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Posted by ChronoCritic in 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.

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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.

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

Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town (2003)

I’m conflicted about Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. On release, Friends of Mineral Town (FoMT) was an innovative title that pushed the boundaries of the farming / social sim genres and raised their mass market appeal. It indisputably laid the groundwork for (spiritual) successors like Animal Crossing and the much more recent Stardew Valley. The problem, however, is just that: the game, by today’s standards – is all groundwork; all the core genre ideas are present in a neonatal sort of way, recognisable but underdeveloped. Add to that an apparent vicious insistence on making life unnecessarily difficult, and many of today’s less determined players will be put off by FoMT long before the game opens up and becomes truly enjoyable.

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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 cancelled the game’s worldwide 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 hardlocked, immutable character classes that had theretofore dominated role-playing adventures. Instead, FFV introduced 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 Occidental engagement with the game to eyeballing glossy screencaps in gaming digests. Can’t 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, putting a damper on the entire experience.
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  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)

Many classic 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, separate friend from foe, and seek out your destiny. This allows for a journey filled with revelations and plot twists, and leaves you always wanting to learn more.

Fire Emblem: the Sacred Stones takes a different approach. 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. Leading with a narrative infodump seemed like an odd way of trying to hook a player. Sadly, odd design abounds in Sacred Stones, as I was about to find out.

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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.

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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.

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Posted by ChronoCritic in Retrospectives