My Favorite Video Games, Pt. 4

The last couple of weeks have focused on games from the 16-bit era of video gaming, the era that I refer to as the “Golden Age” of video games. And this week will be no different, as my seventh favorite video game of all time is Chrono Trigger.

In my mind, Chrono Trigger will always be paired with Final Fantasy III. It was released about a year later (March 1995 in Japan, August 1995 in North America) and in many ways it feels like a continuation of Final Fantasy III.  It is a JRPG like FFIII, and the battle system used in Chrono Trigger bears a lot of similarity to that of FFIII. Chrono Trigger’s graphical style is also somewhat similar to FFIII’s, although more technically sophisticated and also somewhat more “cartoonish”.

The story of Chrono Trigger is what truly sets it apart. In Chrono Trigger, you play as a young man named Crono (why it’s not spelled the same way as in the title, I have no idea). Crono lives in a kingdom known as Guardia, which is just about to celebrate its one thousandth year of existence with a Millennial Fair. Conveniently, this takes place in the year 1000. Crono heads out to the fair as soon as it opens so he can check out the latest experiment created by his friend Lucca, who is something of a genius. On his way to Lucca’s demonstration, he (literally) runs into a mysterious girl who calls herself Marle. Together, they go to Lucca’s demonstration. Lucca’s invention turns out to be a teleportation device, and when Crono tests it out, it works perfectly. Marle decides she wants to try it too, but this time the machine reacts with her pendant, a mysterious portal opens up, and she disappears. Crono bravely decides to follow her into the portal, and he ends up 400 years in the past.

As Crono explores the Guardia of the year 600, he learns that the kingdom had recently been in an uproar because the King’s wife, Queen Leene, had disappeared, but now everybody was happy because she had recently been found. Crono makes his way to the castle, where he discovers that “Queen Leene” is actually none other than Marle. She tells Crono that people had been mistaken for Leene, but before they can go back to the portal and return to their own time, Marle disappears again. Crono then runs into Lucca, who tells him that Marle is actually Princess Nadia, who is a descendant of Queen Leene. During the normal course of events, Leene was rescued after she was captured, and went on to have children and grandchildren and so on. But because Marle appeared in the past and people thought she was Leene, the real Leene was never rescued, and thus Marle was never born. Lucca and Crono then go off to rescue the real Leene, in the process meeting an anthropomorphic frog, who is conveniently named Frog. Having thus saved Leene from the grip of evil monsters, the normal flow of time is restored, Marle reappears, and the three friends return to their own time and live happily ever after.

Just kidding. Back in the present, Crono escorts Marle back to the castle, but once they arrive, Crono is arrested by the Chancellor for abducting the princess. A sham trial is conducted, and Crono is sentenced to be executed. Fortunately, Lucca arrives in the nick of time to rescue him, and on their way out of the castle, they are joined by Marle. The King’s guards chase them into a nearby forest, where they find another time portal, or “Gate”. Deciding that plunging into the unknown is a better idea than getting caught by the guards, they enter it and find themselves in a futuristic wasteland, where humanity is desperately struggling to survive. They soon discover a horrible truth. They are in the year 2300, 301 years after a monster known as Lavos emerged from under the earth and laid waste to the entire world. Crono and his friends vow to use the power of time travel that they have discovered to figure out what Lavos is, and stop it from destroying the world.

Now, you may be thinking that I have spent an inordinate amount of time talking about this game’s story, but really, it’s the story that makes this game so special. The battle system is really just a slightly tweaked version of the battle system used in Final Fantasy IV and VI, although it does do some neat stuff with double and triple techniques. But really, people who love Chrono Trigger love it because of the story.

It’s a great story not just because of the characters and the plot, but because it’s different every time you play it. Now, this is a common feature of modern-day games, but back in 1995, there really wasn’t much else like Chrono Trigger available on consoles. Chrono Trigger’s ever-changing nature isn’t nearly as sophisticated as it is in modern games like Fallout 3 or Mass Effect, but there are more than a dozen endings to see. The way this is set up is rather clever. See, on your first trip through the game, you pretty much are forced to play it one way and see the story as a whole. But once you beat the game, a “New Game+” option opens up, which lets you start the game from the beginning and carry over all your weapons and items and stats and whatnot. Basically, this means that you are powerful enough right from the beginning to take on the last boss at any time. And this is where the multiple ending structure comes in. At any point in the game, you can travel to the year 1999 and take on Lavos, and depending on where you are in the game when you do this, you’ll get a different ending that will shed more light on the Chrono Trigger back story and universe. It’s a very clever way to extend an already meaty game.

Anyway, next week you get to learn about the sixth best video game of all time. So you’ve got that to look forward to this week.

My Favorite Video Games, Pt. 3

Not only was number 8 originally released on the same system as number 9, it was actually released the same year as number 9. 1994 was a good year for video games, apparently. My eighth favorite video game of all time is Super Metroid.

I don’t recall my anticipation level for Super Metroid being as high as it was for Final Fantasy III, but I do remember that it was very high. I had played the original Metroid on NES briefly and Metroid II: The Return of Samus for Game Boy extensively, so I definitely knew what I was getting into. Super Metroid came out in April of 1994, and I got it for my birthday a month later. Super Metroid is one of those games that can be played over and over again and it doesn’t get old. Part of the reason for this is because it’s so freaking good. But it also benefits from the fact that it can be played in a variety of different ways.

First, a little background. Super Metroid differs from Final Fantasy VI in that it doesn’t place a heavy emphasis on story. There IS a story, but it basically just brackets the gameplay. To set the stage, you play as Samus Aran, a famous bounty hunter, who has just captured the last of the Metroids. (Metroids are jellyfish-like organisms that absorb life energy from other organisms.) She deposits the baby Metroid at a scientific research station, and heads off to find more bounties to, er, hunt. Before she gets very far, she receives a distress signal from the station she just left, and discovers that the station was attacked by the Space Pirates, a group of nasty dudes who yearn to rule the galaxy with an iron fist and have no idea how to come up with a clever name for their organization. The Space Pirates want to breed the last Metroid and use its life-sucking powers to aid their goal of galactic domination. Samus returns to the station, battles a Space Pirate leader by the name of Ridley, whom she had thought dead, and fails to keep the Metroid away from the Space Pirates. She is then forced to follow the Pirates to their base on the planet of Zebes.

At this point, the story is pretty much done (except for the ending), but the gameplay is just beginning. The Space Pirate base on Zebes is a vast and twisting labyrinth that exists mostly underground, and is jam-packed with missiles, energy tanks, power suit upgrades, and various other goodies for Samus to find and utilize. The joy of this and other Metroid games is exploring every little nook and cranny in an attempt to obtain every single little power-up in the whole game. Or you can blast through it as fast as possible and try to finish it with as few upgrades as possible. That’s the beauty of this game. It can be played as deeply or as superficially as you want.

Super Metroid has been one of the more influential games in the history of video gaming. The non-linear, explore-and-collect gameplay that Metroid introduced and Super Metroid perfected has been aped repeatedly but arguably never quite surpassed. (Except for one instance. I’ll talk about that in a few weeks.) Probably the games that have come closest are Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Shadow Complex. The first of these was released on the Playstation in 1997. The second was released as an Xbox Live Arcade game in 2009. Both of them take the gameplay style of Super Metroid into interesting new areas. Castlevania, in fact, was so polished, successful, and influential in its own right that subsequent games that fall into this mold, such as Shadow Complex, have been referred to as “Metroidvania” games.

There is a sad side story that accompanies the history of Super Metroid. The Metroid series was created by a man named Gunpei Yokoi. As great as the Metroid games were, Gunpei’s real strengths lay in hardware development. His most impressive accomplishment was the original Game Boy, which was extraordinarily successful on its own, plus it laid the foundation for other highly successful handheld systems. Unfortunately for Gunpei, his follow-up to the Game Boy was the ill-fated Virtual Boy. The Virtual Boy was a strange hybrid system: too bulky to be considered a handheld, but too underpowered to be considered a full console. Its main claim to fame was that it displayed images in 3D, which was kind of cool, but not really all that exciting.

The Virtual Boy was a complete disaster. People who used it complained that it caused headaches (because of the 3D effect and harsh red monochrome that it displayed images in) and cramping (because you had to hunch over to use it). That, combined with the weird gray area that this thing existed in, meant that virtually nobody bought it. (Except for my parents. Because I really, really wanted one. Because I was too dumb to realize how terrible it was.) It was such a total disaster that Gunpei Yokoi was sacked because of it, despite his previous successes. Such as the Game Boy. And Super Metroid. Gunpei Yokoi went on to start his own company (Koto Laboratory), but unfortunately he was killed in a car accident soon after.

(Disclaimer: Wikipedia claims that Gunpei Yokoi did not leave Nintendo because of the Virtual Boy, but rather he had always planned to retire at the age of 50. I have never heard this story before, so make of it what you will.)

In any case, although Gunpei Yokoi may be gone, his creations live on. The Game Boy line of hardware was incredibly successful in its own right, and it laid the groundwork for the Nintendo DS, which is probably the most successful video game console of all time. And of course, Super Metroid is the 8th best video game ever created. Which is pretty impressive, when you think about all of the many, many video games that have been made in the past 40+ years. So there’s that. Check back next week to hear about the 7th best video game of all time!

My Favorite Video Games, Pt. 2

I’m sure you’ve been waiting all week to finally figure out what my ninth-favorite video game of all time is, so I shall reveal it without any further ado. That game is Final Fantasy VI, one of the greatest JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games) ever made. It’s also known as Final Fantasy III. Confused? Well, you won’t be in a second.

Final Fantasy VI was originally released in Japan in April of 1994 for the Super Famicom. It was released in North America in October of the same year for the American version of the Super Famicom, known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. As it was only the third Final Fantasy game to be released in the US, it was renamed Final Fantasy III. I will probably flip back and forth between the two names throughout this post, because I prefer to use the game’s proper name, but I can’t help but think about it as Final Fantasy III when I remember playing it as a kid.

I don’t think I’ve ever anticipated a game prior to its release as intensely as I did Final Fantasy III. I was 13 years old, and the Golden Age of Video Gaming was in full swing. I was already a huge fan of the Final Fantasy series thanks to Final Fantasy II (actually Final Fantasy IV), which came out in 1992 for the SNES. At the time, I had a subscription to Nintendo Power, and its preview coverage of Final Fantasy III pretty much had me foaming at the mouth to get ahold of that game.

I mentioned earlier that FFIII came out in October of 1994. I got that date from Wikipedia, and I’m questioning its accuracy now that I think about it. The reason I say that is because I remember the wait between when the game came out and when my brother and I got it for Christmas being almost UNBEARABLE. Then again, I was a kid back then, so it guess it makes sense that a two month wait would seem painfully long, especially since I’d been waiting a long time for the game to even come out.

I still vividly remember my first experience with the game. We may have had to wait until Christmas to actually own the game, but that didn’t stop us from renting it beforehand. The game opens with a scene showing three soldiers riding mechs through a snow-covered valley, while melancholy music plays and the opening credits roll. Anybody who has played this game knows exactly what I’m talking about. It is a haunting and beautiful scene, and it gave me goosebumps the first time I ever saw it.

The game starts off with you playing as a mysterious girl who is being controlled by a pair of soldiers. The soldiers are looking for something called an Esper, that has recently been unearthed in a city called Narshe. Once they find it, the Esper reacts to the girl, kills both the soldiers, and knocks the girl unconscious. When she comes to, you discover that her name is Terra and that she had been a slave of the Empire. She meets a young thief treasure hunter named Locke, who is a member of a rebel group called the Returners. Terra ends up joining the Returners and their struggle against the Empire.

That’s how the story begins. I won’t go into detail about what happens along the way, but I will say that it’s a story that pulls no punches and does not take an expected path. For example, although the story starts with Terra as the main character, the focus does not remain exclusively on her. There are at least a dozen major protagonists in the game, and they all get some time in the spotlight. Up until Final Fantasy XIII, which was released last year, it was the only Final Fantasy game to not focus on one main character. (Disclaimer: I have never played Final Fantasy XII, and I know nothing about it. It is entirely possible that XII takes this approach as well.)

Final Fantasy VI’s story is also unique in another sense. There are no shortage of stories out there in any medium where a power-hungry mad man tries to destroy the world. But FFVI is the only one that I know of where said mad man actually succeeds in destroying the world. Talk about an emotional kick in the gut! The villain in FFVI, Kefka, is definitely one of the best video game villains of all time. He’s ruthless, deadly, and terrifying. His only goal is to rule the world with an iron fist, and actually succeeds at that goal, at least for a little while. He’s also hilarious, and delivers some really fantastic one-liners.

Strangely enough, although the unexpected plot twist where the bad guy destroys the world is one of the really great moments in this game, the aftermath of that destruction is where the game starts to fall apart a little bit. For a long time, I debated with myself over whether this game was the best Final Fantasy, or whether Final Fantasy VII was. And I finally had to declare VII the winner, partially because the second half of VI is kind of boring. The game becomes much more open-ended, because you are basically reassembling the resistance group that was scattered when Kefka destroyed the world. And I just find it to be somewhat aimless and meandering, and, well, boring. Every time I’ve ever played Final Fantasy VI, I have a hard time getting through the second half.

But despite that, it’s still an amazing game, and a bona fide classic. When it comes to all time greatest JRPGs, there’s really only a couple of games that even come close to the same caliber of greatness as Final Fantasy VI. It truly is the gold standard for JRPGs, for 16-bit games, and even for video games in general. After all, there’s only 8 games that have ever been made that are better than it. Check back next week to find out about number 8!

My Favorite Video Games, Pt. 1

Lately I’ve been trying to turn this blog into more of a tech news blog, because that’s something I’m interested in and it seems like something that’s worth writing about. But I am in no way a journalist (despite taking a journalism class during my sophomore year of high school), and so my take on tech news is basically just my interpretation of a random timely topic. Maybe there is some value to this, but whether there is or not, I’m pretty bored of it. So I’m gonna do something different for awhile.

I love me some video games, so for the next 10 weeks, I’m going to count down my top 10 favorite video games, in order, discussing one each week. So without any further ado, I present my 10th favorite video game of all time: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Released in November of 1998 for the Nintendo 64, Ocarina of Time is considered by many authorities to be the greatest video game ever made. (Obviously I disagree, but we’ll deal with that later.) Ocarina of Time was the fourth Zelda game to be released, not counting handheld versions or semi-authorized spinoffs. By the time Ocarina of Time came out in 1998, it had been six whole years since the last major Zelda game. So Zelda fans were pretty rabidly excited to finally get their hands on a new Zelda game. And Ocarina of Time did not disappoint.

Ocarina of Time was the first Zelda game to be released on a system that was powerful enough to do polygonal graphics, and the developers of the game made great use of this capability. Ocarina of Time provided a massive sandbox to play around in, a massive world to explore where you could climb to the summit of the highest mountain, dive deep below the deepest lake, ride your horse across a vast plain, delve into ancient temples and unlock their secrets, have a complex and satisfying swordfight with a skilled opponent, and engage in a whole bunch of other activities that I can’t remember at the moment. It was an epic adventure in every sense of the word.

Now, I mentioned earlier that Ocarina of Time is often considered the best video game ever made, and clearly I disagree, since I’ve ranked it tenth on my all-time favorite games list. The problem lies in how one defines the word “best”. When I talk about “The Ten Best Games of All Time”, I’m talking about the ten games I enjoy the most. Obviously I enjoy Ocarina of Time a great deal. But there are nine other games that I enjoy more. And of course this list is ever-changing. One of the games on my list came out in 2008. Obviously this game wasn’t on my list five years ago.

I definitely think you could make a case for Ocarina of Time as the most important game ever, though. There had never been a video game adventure of such size and scope prior to Ocarina of Time, and it’s arguable the games that have come after it are still trying to catch up, including Nintendo’s own efforts. I don’t want to say that there was NOTHING like it beforehand. Ocarina of Time takes a great deal of inspiration from A Link to the Past in terms of the game’s overall structure and plot. It also built heavily on the foundation laid by Super Mario 64 (released two years earlier), which is generally considered the first “true” 3D platformer. One could argue that Ocarina of Time takes A Link to the Past’s plot structure and setting and combines it with Super Mario 64’s gameplay mechanics. But there are layers of depth and beauty to Ocarina of Time that none of its predecessors came close to matching.

Ocarina of Time is also notable because it is arguably the last time that Nintendo released a game that utterly changed the way games are played. (For the better, I mean. One could argue that Wii Sports changed the way games are played for the worse.) Although Ocarina of Time may have borrowed specific elements from games that came before it, the overall package was truly unlike any other game before it. I’m going to steal an illustration of this effect from IGN’s review of the game. Games prior to Ocarina of Time may have had a mountain off in the distance, but that mountain was just there for decoration. In Ocarina of Time, you could stand in the middle of a field, see a mountain off in the distance, and then actually climb to the top of that mountain and look back and see the field you had been standing on before. This sort of thing was unprecedented back in 1998.

I haven’t played the game recently, so I can’t really tell you how it holds up, especially in terms of graphics. Video games, especially older ones, always look better in my memory than they do in reality, so I have a feeling that if I booted up Ocarina of Time right now, my first reaction would be something like, “Yecchh!” But I think after a little while, I would forget about the dated graphics and just focus on the sublime experience.

Or I could just break down and buy a 3DS. In about a month and a half, a full-blown remake of Ocarina of Time is being released for that system. Nintendo has redone the graphics to bring them up to date, and they’ve redone the controls so that they better fit the 3DS. They’re also adding something called the Master Quest, which is a harder version of the game that was originally only included on a disc that was a pre-order bonus for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker back in 2003. They’re also adding a brand-new “boss challenge” mode. So it’s basically the definitive version of the game.

So anyway, those are my thoughts on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The tenth best video game of all time. Check back next week for number nine!