.journal 2001.02.12
Entirely too long a rant on video games.

Now listening to: Recoil, Liquid
Now reading: Poppy Z. Brite, Exquisite Corpse
Now playing: Crazy Taxi (Dreamcast)

Pardon me while I go off on a rant about video games. Well, it's what I feel like doing right now, what can I say.

During this most recent illness of mine I finally had enough time to finish Final Fantasy VIII, some eighteen months after I first picked it up. And after finally slogging all the way through the game, I found my hopes dashed that there would be something in the later part of the adventure that would help pick the game up for me. In the end I found myself staring at the time-clock in the game stating how many hours I'd been playing the game, and felt that all that time I'd spent had been wasted.

I'd tried two times previously to get my way through the game, but unlike every other Final Fantasy game I'd previously played, this one just could not hook me enough to keep going very far in it. I don't know if I'd even have finished it this last time, had a prolonged illness not forced me to spend a lot of time in bed with little else to do other than play video games. But now that I've gotten my way through the game in its entirety, I feel my judgment about the game is much more tangible, more qualified, and I'm still sorely disappointed in this game.

As I've stated before, my main complaint with the mechanics of the game is the whole SeeD system. Role-playing games, by their nature, are supposed to be about exploration, and watching your SeeD ranking drop just because you wanted to take the time to speak to a couple of townspeople (or, often times, for no discernible reason) was completely frustrating and really took a great deal of enjoyment away from the game for me. But even the second-to-last time I played the game, I used a Game Shark to disable the SeeD system entirely, and I still didn't have the enthusiasm to get past the first few moments of the second disc. So it wasn't just the SeeD system that bummed me out.

I also didn't much care for the magic system in the game at all, as so many battles invariably turned into the mindless repetition of drawing spells over and over again to stock up your inventory. What I'm finding, as I survey all the main Final Fantasy games released (ignoring Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, Final Fantasy Tactics and other off-shoot titles), is that Square always likes to experiment with non-traditional RPG systems in the second title for whatever system they've moved to. Final Fantasy II did away with experience points entirely in favour of each skill having its own level which increased as you used it, but gaps in the system really prevented it from working well in practice. Final Fantasy V (thankfully released in the US finally as part of Final Fantasy Anthology) implemented the now-infamous job skill system in a much more refined method than the previous method tested in Final Fantasy III, and that worked to a large degree. But the "draw magic" and SeeD systems in Final Fantasy VIII were both poorly conceived, and the game could have benefited a great deal by just sticking with traditional methods of implementing magic and monetary gain.

Another big fault of Final Fantasy VIII was the overly gratuitous use of movie cut-scenes which added little to the game. Just as the second Final Fantasy released on a system tends to break traditional RPG rules and try something new, the first Final Fantasy released on a system always sees the developers just dip their feet into the waters, and see what new things they can do with the system while still holding true to RPG fundamentals, and that approach results in the best Final Fantasy games. Final Fantasy I doesn't have previous Final Fantasy titles to compare it to, but compared to the RPGs of its time it was a spectacular effort. Final Fantasy IV finally gave the developers the ability to implement a compelling story in the game, and a lush soundtrack to support the story and its key moments, and in my mind is still the best video game, let alone Final Fantasy, of them all. Final Fantasy VII ... well, compare its use of movie cut-scenes to Final Fantasy VIII: in Final Fantasy VII, movie cut-scenes are only used at critical moments when they add something to the story. And Final Fantasy VII's storyline is nearly as well thought-out as Final Fantasy IV's, with the only real fault being the somewhat cheap and easy way they provoke the strongest reaction in the game, at the end of the first disc. (I know at least two of my readers are going through Final Fantasy VII for the first time, so I won't spoil it for them.)

Ultimately, though, what kills Final Fantasy VIII is the story. Quite honestly, the story is the blandest I've seen in any Final Fantasy title, and without a story to hold the gameplay in place the game suffers terribly. The threats of the sorceresses in the game are never really conveyed with any sense of terror, and Squall's maturation seems more forced by arbitrary factors than something true and genuine, like Cloud's development in Final Fantasy VII. Character motivations are skimpy, and the progression of events doesn't have a clear logic to it. And that's the one thing most Final Fantasy titles have been able to pride themselves on, is that deep, rich storyline. Without it, Final Fantasy VIII just seems like a pastiche of places and events and battles, and not something worthy of the Final Fantasy name.

And perhaps this is just a personal bother on my part, but I'd like to know why Square insists on killing off the one thread between all the Final Fantasy games: the music. The "Crystal Theme" and the "Anthem" have been in every Final Fantasy game since the first, and identify the series as strongly as any other factor in the games. Even though the "Anthem" has been relegated to a supporting role in the ending theme for a long time now, Square always found a way to put the "Crystal Theme" in each game, somewhere. I got to the ending of Final Fantasy VIII, and it says something that even when the "Anthem" came on during the ending I didn't cry, because every time I have heard the "Anthem" since the series went 16-bit it has made me cry. But I got past the ending, got to the final screen, it went black, and I was hoping that eventually the "Crystal Theme" would kick in so I would at least hear it once during the game. But the black screen stayed up without sound, and eventually I just turned the system off, put Final Fantasy VIII back up on my shelf and I don't know as though I'll ever take it back down again.

After all that, though, I had a need inside me, and there was only one way to fulfill it. So I went over to my Super Nintendo games, pulled out Final Fantasy VI (released on that system as Final Fantasy III due to the screwy re-numbering done in the games' early days on American shores, now retitled Final Fantasy VI as part of Final Fantasy Anthology), plopped it in and played it for an hour and just basically enjoyed what it was like playing a game like that, where things were kept simple, easy and more like the traditional RPG mold.

So the next day I got up, and turned Final Fantasy VI back on. Only the title screen never came up. I turned the system off and then back on again, but still got nothing. I took the cartridge out and cleaned the edges, and finally after some more cleaning and power starts and stops, I got the title screen up. Only the battery backup, containing all the saves I'd had in the game, went kaplooey. Damn it to hell. Well, I know those batteries are only expected to last about five years, but the battery backup in my copy of Legend to Zelda for my old NES still works after well over a decade, so I was kind of hoping that luck would extend to my other games.

Frustrated at that, I put Final Fantasy VI back on the shelf and got out Final Fantasy IV. Thankfully, its battery is still working. Unfortunately, about an hour and a half into the game, at the waterfall scene in the second part of the Watery Pass, the game locks up. Again and again and again and again. And unlike Final Fantasy VI, I can't go out and get the game on Playstation (at least not yet; rumours abound that Square will also port the game over to Playstation for the US market). So you can guess I'm not that eager to get my copy of Chrono Trigger (the best Super NES RPG Square released that wasn't a Final Fantasy) out anytime soon.

I know this stuff isn't meant to last forever, and it's hardly like I'm dusting each system every week I have it. But still, the old stuff is often still the best. Jeff actually has my old NES right now, along with my copies of Legend of Zelda and Metroid, because I wanted him to experience what true joy those games were, and still are. (Jeff never had an NES.) Zelda and Metroid, nearly fifteen years after their release, are still more fun to play than most of the games coming out today, and that says something. Quite honestly I hope to still be able to bring them out years from now and play them all over again. (I know I can get emulations of them online, but that's not exactly legal and it's just not the same without the old box-shaped NES control pad in your hands.)

I am a packrat, not a collector, which explains why my stuff isn't in as good a shape as it could be. Still, I pride myself on having my NES (and I'll still buy games for it if I see them in a used video game shop or a garage sale), as well as some of the lesser-sold systems like the TurboGrafx-16 and Jaguar. And I'd like to add to my collection as well, hopefully one of these days going on eBay and buying a Sega Master System (although I have two functioning Genesis systems and one functioning Master Base Converter for playing Master System games on it, as well as a Master Gear converter for playing Master System games on my Game Gear - and yes, I do own the original Phantasy Star, thanks for asking), a TurboDuo or a Jaguar CD. Ultimately, though, it's not the collectibility of the systems that intrigues me, it's simply the enjoyment I get out of playing them. After all, every system has at least one good game on it you can never play on any other system. Okay, maybe not the Virtual Boy, although I will cop to buying one of those when they went down to $30.

So anyway, Jeff and I went to Best Buy over the weekend because I'm trying to get my old computer operational again, and I needed a new CD-ROM drive because the DVD in the old one is just acting up, and while that was the main reason I went over there, I was also hoping to pick up Final Fantasy Anthology so I could securely play the old Final Fantasy games again. The only problem was Best Buy was out, so I picked up Crazy Taxi instead. I'd had my eye on Crazy Taxi for some time, but for obvious reasons I didn't want to pick it up while I was still learning how to drive in the real world.

And for what it is, Crazy Taxi is a great game. It's not something I see myself plugging away with for hours on end like a role-playing game, but it has such a high "fun factor" that it's still hard to tear yourself away from it. And the difficulty is just at the right level, so I want to keep trying to raise my scores a bit more and more. The problem with that, though, is that I have no room on my VMU to save my scores because I need to offload my save file from when I rented NFL 2K1, and until Sega sends me the second version of their Internet browser I won't be able to do that.

One of the things that bothers me about Crazy Taxi, though, is the special maneuvers. I don't mind the sequences themselves, it's just that trying to hit one of the "normal" buttons and one of the triggers on the backside of the controller at the same time is an exercise in frustration because the triggers have such a wide range of motion. It's nice that the range is so wide, and it makes driving games a cinch because you have real control over speed, but it's hard to know when the actual "hit point" is when trying to do combinations with the triggers. That was a real problem for me with Marvel vs. Capcom as well, and really took away from the game - then again, the Dreamcast controller was just not meant for fighting games. Don't even get me started on the bastardization of removing middle attacks in Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and other Capcom fighting games.

While we're on the subject of controllers, I never bought a Dual Shock controller for my original Playstation, so my first experience with that model of controller was when I got my Playstation 2 last year. And playing all my video game systems recently, one of the things I have come to appreciate about the Nintendo 64 controller, as maligned as it is, is the fact that it has a hexagonal base underneath the analog stick, which makes it infinitely easier to hold the controller straight up, or straight left, or straight in one of whatever direction, when playing. The Playstation and Dreamcast analog sticks don't have that, and it makes things a bit more frustrating when trying to hold the stick straight.

Unfortunately, I think Nintendo is just so horribly off-base when it comes to their upcoming GameCube system that I don't even know if I'm going to pick one up - and I was a first-day buyer of both the Super NES and the Nintendo 64. But with that whacked-out controller design, the proprietary "small disc" medium greatly constraining the amount of space available to developers, and real questions about the power of the system compared to both the Playstation 2 and XBox, not to mention the fact that development of the next Metroid title seems to be busting, I just don't know. Sega's already admitted defeat in the console wars, and I think Nintendo may be heading down that road sooner rather than later. And that would only leave Sony and Microsoft to duke things out, and I don't think that would be a good thing for gamers.

On one final note, I picked up NHL 2001 for Playstation 2 when the system came out, and by and large I'd been happy with the game, but earlier this year I stopped playing it for awhile. As great as the game is, I guess there are enough minute flaws with it that, even recognizing it's a first-generation title, I still really can't fully immerse myself in it. And the thing is, all the flaws are really minute, and should be forgiven, but they just rub me the wrong way.

The first thing I don't like is the character animations, and the fact that they're all the same all the time. I realize Madden 2001 is just starting to use a limb-based physics model as opposed to pre-defined motions, but with the fine detail in NHL 2001 what often ends up happening is that a player will shoot a puck that you can clearly see his stick never gets close to, and that's a real pain. (The replay angles are also screwy because there's no way anyone could get a camera onto the ice the way many of the replay angles are shot. NFL 2K1 at least got that part right.) There are also far too many super-checks in the game, as I never seem to be able to play a game without turning at least ten opposing players head-over-heels. And while that's nice for my ego to see, it isn't a realistic experience.

And speaking of realism, when are we ever going to see realistic pass and shot deflections? I don't know why Electronic Arts hasn't focused on adding deflections to the game (as opposed to the current "either you steal the puck clean or you don't touch it" method), as that would even out so many other smaller problems with the game (the need to set the clock to the fastest speed to keep scoring realistic, which in turn would remove the problem of weak power plays, and the whole "anyone close to the puck automatically gains control" system). That seems to be the big stumbling block for making the game truly realistic, and I can only hope NHL 2002 removes this problem.

The commentary also leaves a lot to be desired; commentary in sports video games has always left something to be desired (and I'm a proud owner of the original Joe Montana Sports Talk Football for Genesis), but when I rented NFL 2K1 for Dreamcast earlier they seemed to have, by and large, gotten it right. So much commentary during my games is totally off-base, and I don't like being told penalty killing "has been a weak link" for my Red Wings when they've got the fifth best penalty kill in the league, simply because I'm first in everything else. I also don't like the fact that when I created myself in the game, the announcers kept referring to me as "Sean" when all the other players are called by their last names. (And while we're on the subject, when are they going to put female players in the Create-a-Player mode? Does the name Manon Rhaueme mean anything to you?) And the worst part is, I can think of the ways to make the commentary more natural and more realistic, and I know full well the developers could have put them in the game. But I guess I'm stuck waiting until later this year to see if NHL 2002 is better.

What I'd really like, though, since there is so much power in the Playstation 2 to be harnessed, is more localization. I'd really love it if either I could receive a disc, or else go online through the Playstation 2 and download the appropriate samples to my hard drive, to play a Red Wings game the way I see them on the air, with Ken Daniels on play-by-play, Mickey Redmond doing colour commentary, Budd Lynch doing the announcing at the Joe, Karen Newman singing the national anthem and such. And even music samples, with "Hey Hey Hockeytown" playing whenever the Wings net their first goal, or "What's Going On" playing whenever the ref makes a bad call against the Wings. (And that's another problem with NHL 2001 - I've seen the ref make too many penalty calls with his back turned away from the penalty.) And since I'm on a wish list right now, it'd also be nice if I could see lots of Little Caesars Pizza banners over the Joe (since the Red Wings, Little Caesars and the Tigers are all owned by Mike Ilitch), and other references to local companies.

Looking ahead to Playstation 3, how about a hockey game where you play the game straight and it saves all the motions to the hard drive, then afterwords you have an option to actually watch the game in true television presentation - with commercials interspliced throughout the game, pre- and post-game shows and the like. (Although at least for now Electronic Arts should be able to add television time-out recovery time to the game.) And being able to mix-and-match announcers would be great, especially if programmed correctly. (For example, current ESPN hockey play-by-play announcer Dave Strader used to be Mickey Redmond's broadcast partner in Detroit before going national, and it would be nice if the game knew that and could have them engage in appropriate conversation about their old days together. Yeah, this is all wish list-type stuff, I know, but I'd still like to get it out on the table on my little soapbox here. (Is it any wonder I'm so interested in learning how to program computers and games?)

Anyway, rant over. I felt I had some stuff I wanted to say about video games, and I sure seem to have taken up a great deal of space. Hopefully now that I've gotten this out of my system I can get back to just enjoying video games, and not critiquing them. I've spent too much of my life critiquing other people's efforts and not making efforts myself in the things I want to do, and I want to remedy that. Hopefully this little blab session has cleared the way for me to do that.

I'll see you all soon, hopefully with something far more substantial to talk about.

- Sean