The Best of Japanese RPGs for Me

Note: This is an old post from the soon-to-be-defunct Slow Gamers. That site is closing, so I’m moving over my Opinion posts from that site to here.

I know that it is getting pretty common to “hate on” the traditional JRPG (Japanese Role-Playing Game). At least I think that is the lingo that the current generation is using to describe a dislike of something and the derogatory comments given under such pretenses.

I grew up during what might be the “hey day” (what in the world is with this lingo) of the Japanese RPG … mainly the SNES and Playstation Final Fantasy games. When Square and Enix were competitors and FMVs were novel because they were too large for many media types of the time.

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Final Fantasy IX is what I might consider to be the last great Japanese RPG from the original Final Fantasy lineage. It might also be my favorite game of the entire series (it is always a toss-up between Final Fantasy VI and IX for me). What is it about Final Fantasy IX, however, that sticks with me all of these years later? What makes a great Japanese RPG (JRPG from now on) for me?

I finished the game during a summer vacation to Colorado and I still remember the feeling of finally beating it … a mixture of elation and sadness. Somehow that game connected with me like few had before or since.

Distilling Final Fantasy IX down to its basic parts is not easy because the whole game seems, more of less, to be a farewell letter from Hironobu Sakaguchi as he stepped away from the series he had created. It was so full of heart, whimsy, laughter, and soul that I really don’t know if I can place my finger on a single thing.

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One defining thing for me has always been the setting of a JRPG … which usually revolves around some sort of pseudo-medieval time period. The setting sometimes can get ridiculous. Final Fantasy VI had many elements of science fiction (with VII and VIII taking that even further), but IX went back to the roots and it worked so well. Even The Last Story sits itself firmly in this overall pseudo-setting and it works.

But why?

Part of it has to do with the freedom a storyteller can take with a setting that retains some elements a person might have some history with. Almost everyone has studied the medieval times in some fashion, so motifs and call backs to that era are little items that a designer and storyteller can work from. It can be their starting point, freeing a person to work from there.

The wealth of myth involved in that period as well allows for some expansion. Arthurian myths allow for magic and amazing happenings, which these games were obviously influenced by. It also gives a backdrop, often, for classical characters along the spectrum of good vs. evil.

It might be well-trod, but it is also well-trod for a reason … IT FREAKING WORKS!

The music is also fantastic, artistic, sweeping, massive, and … fitting. That’s really all you want, and it is sometimes under appreciated by a great many people. Go ahead and grab some video game soundtracks and just enjoy the endless mixture of music textures that go into a single game. Motion pictures are not often nearly as ambitious in their use of different styles of music.

It helps, too, when you have one of the greatest companion characters of all time.

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Just read up on Vivi on your own time. Looking back now, the Loyalty Missions from Mass Effect 2 (one of my favorite parts of that excellent game) are really just shorter versions of everything you do and learn about Vivi.

That gets down to it, right? Why do I like Star Trek: The Original Series? Mass Effect? Dragon Age? Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic? StarCraft?

It is the characters. The relationships. The “humanity” is where the power really lies.

Some games are meant to be just that, games. Something you have a clear goal in accomplishing and finding the best, quickest, easiest way of accomplishing that goal is all that is important.

For a JRPG, to be truly great in my mind, you need to have excellent characters. Not necessarily characters someone can relate to (but it can help), but good characters that a person can find their own person caring about at the end.

That is why Vivi is so great. That is why Zidane is an amazing protagonist and Garnet a great tragic leader. You end up caring about the characters.

It is why Final Fantasy VI has more heart than pretty much any JRPG recently (The Last Story not in that group). You care about those characters, even when there are 90 of them (exaggeration of course).

Final Fantasy IX had this. I would like more of it back.

How I Play Games

Note: This is an old post from the soon-to-be-defunct Slow Gamers. That site is closing, so I’m moving over my Opinion posts from that site to here.

My days of long hours being spent in front of a television of computer display are long gone. They are gone to spend more time with my family and with my other responsibilities. It is not that I miss those days all that much, it is only that times have changed and so … the way I play games has changed.

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Currently my “gaming” takes place in two different areas: home consoles and mobile. More specifically the Nintendo Wii U and iOS. I’ll write in reverse order this time.

iOS and Mobile

I carry my iPad with my most places and my iPhone with me at all times. Because of that, I do keep a few games there just in case I find myself with some time to kill … and because the games are quite fun. They are also quite different from what I would traditionally play.

Letterpress, by atebits, has been the one game to stick around the longest on my phone. It is also a game that is uniquely suited for iOS and mobile gaming. The asynchronous nature of the gameplay also means I can pick it up when I have a few seconds to respond instead of needing to play continuously.

I have been playing Hundreds, another puzzle game with a unique twist supplied by the touch screen available on newer devices.

The simpler the concept and the shorter the “levels”, the better it is for me. Part of the issue stems from the fact that the current crop of mobile devices are not, in any way, meant primarily to be gaming devices. That is a secondary function among many.

The Game Gear might be the most ergonomic mobile device … if it could be considered mobile at all. After that, the original Game Boy Advance definitely would be my favorite design for a mobile gaming device. The current mobile devices are not in that category at all.

The benefit, however, is that mobile devices can have adaptive interfaces for different types of games. That’s the tradeoff.

Wii U and Consoles

The Wii U is my “traditional” gaming device, which is funny to say because it is probably the most untraditional of traditional devices currently out there. Truth be told, I have a Wii U because it comes from Nintendo and I’m not one to miss out on the next installment of The Legend of Zelda (even Wind Waker HD).

This is where I will sit down for time measured in hours, not minutes. This is where the “real gaming” happens (whatever that terrible phrase means). This is the console I have purchased with the intent that I will be purchasing the Nintendo exclusives and playing them through along with some older games.

The Wii U is also the family gaming machine. We have Just Dance 4, Nintendo Land, and New Super Mario Bros. U so far and all of them have cooperative play of some sort. This makes it great to bring my son along slowly. It is quite startling to see his progress just in the past month in how much better he is not just at manipulating the controls, but in actually forming strategies to try and beat me.

Sadly, I don’t think I’ll be able to stay ahead of him in video games as long as I might like to.

Personal Computers

Where does that leave the good old PC?

I really don’t know. I’m going to keep one around because there are games that just work better on a PC (I’m looking at you Starcraft and Sim City), but how much longer will those even entice me?

The hard part about a PC for me is that I don’t use it every day because my work is done on a Mac or iOS device. Since I don’t use it every day, I can’t justify purchasing newer hardware that easily and so it sits with outdated hardware for a while until a game comes along where I need to spend about $200 to get it running properly again … not to mention it is another piece of software to keep updated all of the time.

PC gaming is not going anywhere, but I don’t know if it is going anywhere anymore for me.

Conclusion

That’s about it. The basics of it is the same as it has always been: I will go where the games are. Right now the games, for me, are on iOS and the Wii U. When that changes, then my devices will change accordingly.

Wii U Receives System Update

Polygon reports that the Wii U received its system update last night, and I can confirm that it is true … because I installed it just about an hour ago.

Wii U Update

That’s just a picture of my son and me playing Nintendo Land.

So far, the speed update is noticeable. Wait times are down and things seem more fluid than before,  but there is always room for improvement. iOS has forever broken me, and lagging interfaces are now grating.

I haven’t had time to really dig in at all and take a look at some of the other improvements, but it is always good to see an update come down.

I’m still very satisfied with my Wii U and it has been a lot of fun to see my son improve drastically over the past months. We have a lot of fun with it, and that is the idea.

Introducing The Last Story

The Last Story

From the mind of Hironobu Sakaguchi and the people at Mistwalker (with music from Nobuo Uematsu) comes The Last Story, a decidedly Japanese action RPG with all of the thematic moldings of some of the more classic Final Fantasy games …

… which makes sense when you have the father of Final Fantasy and its only composer for the first nine numbered games involved in its creation.

I was made aware of this game a few months back just as it was being announced that it was going to be localized for North America and brought over by XSEED Games. Just the idea of Sakaguchi and Uematsu getting together to create another RPG was enough to get me excited, but then the reviews came in very positive and the fact that it was going to be a Wii exclusive made it even better.

However, I didn’t really have the time to sit down and begin playing through an RPG when it was originally released. Nonetheless I added it to my “Play In The Future” list so that I wouldn’t forget about it.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2013 and I was looking for something new to play on the Wii U. While Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U are great games in their own right, they are not something I normally sit down and play all of the way through. The Last Story seemed like a good fit.

I’ve only been playing for a few days, but so far I like it a lot … definitely the best JRPG I’ve played since Final Fantasy IX and maybe even better than some before that. I’m still getting used to the combat and die probably too often, but I am enjoying myself and so far I’ve found a way to get past any of the more difficult areas.

Look for more about this game from me in the future. Until then, if you like the Final Fantasy series before X, I recommend picking up this game and giving it a shot.

More Thoughts on the Wii U

After reading a few more articles on the Wii U, here are some more thoughts on the Wii U.

  • The Wii U is starting to feel like it could be the final gasp for Nintendo and console-grade hardware. Both Microsoft and Sony are working on the next-next-next-gen of their consoles and either Google or Apple decides to push gaming on their TV offerings it is going to get very crowded very fast.
  • Price might be more important than I originally thought. The gamepad is going to cost something, and if you want/need two of them, that’s going to cost even more. The number of controllers you can have for the system is only going to make it more difficult.
  • Would Nintendo move to mobile-only or software-only if the Wii U fails? Do they have cash reserves to be able to R&D another home console? What is Nintendo without their own hardware? What does that company look like?