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If people don’t use interpretation, or reading between the lines, or trying to find fun in a game, they tend to love games that I only like, and they tend to hate games that I’ve been able to enjoy.  By interpretation, I think I mostly mean something akin to the concept of “active reading.”  In literary criticism, this often means looking at a work both as the text on the page, and looking for the work as what the text could be interpreted to mean.  So, for example, you might take Freud and say that he’s saying A, but he means B, and B is a lot more interesting than A.  If someone’s just looking at what the game does, they may like a game with a stronger theme to the plot (but may ignore the clunky ways that the theme is set out.)  If they can’t look past a bad translation, they may ignore what the plot is trying to say in favor for how poorly the plot is saying it.  I think it might help to discuss specific games to try to explain what I mean.

A cutscene shows bats fluttering up and away from the fortress with a large moon in the background. This plays when you approach Magus' fortress.

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By “the gut punch,” I’m talking about a plot where there’s a sudden climax that’s supposed to be shocking to the player.  In a movie, this might be the revelation that you’ve been working for the villians, or the cliche “you fought the war, but killed a little girl” style scene.

Here, Firia's grandmother reveals that Firia is really a member of the community.

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It’s quite common to find a game with a leitmotif.  You tend to have a tune for villains, a tune for the heroes, etc.  Technically, a leitmotif is really a part of a song that represents a mood / character / etc.  However, people commonly use it to refer to common tracks  or songs.  For me, a leitmotif using a song tends to become annoying as the game goes on.  Let me try to explain with a game that doesn’t annoy, and one that does.

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Each section here, I’m linking to a more detailed description of the game, if I have written one.

Dragon Quest, as a series, feels to me a bit like a game where the journey is the point of the game.  I think the main reason why I say that is that the series tends to spend a lot of time on sub-plots in various areas as you’re advancing the main plot. Final Fantasy, in comparison, tends to have the main plot be what you’re chasing for most of the game.  In Dragon Quest games, you might be searching for a missing kid, which eventually has some relation to the bigger picture.  I suppose a good description of what’s afoot is that the scope of each individual area is on a more personal level.  While the plot may be dark in some of the games, the “canon” name for most of the later heroes and heroines is the number of the game, which shows a certain lack of interest in a deep commitment to immersion in the story.

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One danger in a review is becoming academic about a topic.  For simplicity, I’ll make an example of a book.  George Elliot’s Daniel Deronda is largely considered to be a flawed book by the author, scholars, and readers.  The main flaws are the length, a difficult topic handled poorly, and a subplot that barely intersects with the main plot.  However, the ways that the book are flawed and the difficult topic are exactly the sorts of things that academics find interesting.  While I would say the book is interesting, I definitely would not say that it should be someone’s first Elliot novel, and I would not read the book again for pleasure.

Gate hacking uses items taken from enemies to unlock forbidden areas in .hack//.

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In almost any game system, series, or genre, there’s a game that people say “doesn’t count.”  It’s either a major outlier from the rest of the set, or it’s remarkably better or worse than other examples.  It may be a game that changes so much from the previous examples that it’s almost a new game. Of course, hyperbola is really easy in this kind of discussion, since hatred rarely appears mildly.  Some people claim that the NES Dragon Quest games show more of a “true” connection to the series, despite the dated nature of the games.  Some people claim that a lack of an explorable map makes Final Fantasy X not a RPG.  Now, of course, some of these arguments are simply fannish whining.  However, perhaps looking at two contested series might be interesting.

While this is a small screenshot of Chrono Trigger, you can see Akira Toriyama's distinctive style in the sprites.

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Suikoden, as a series, is technically beyond the scope of this blog.  However, it’s an interesting game to discuss.  The game’s based off of a series of books called Water Margin (also known as Outlaws of the Marsh and All Men are Brothers.)  This Chinese novel series is an early novel, so it reads more like a combination of folk tales about various heroes rather than a smoothly flowing narrative.  Suikoden’s ties to the series are fairly vauge.  While you get people based off of characters in the novels, it’s not a literal retelling of events.

Why is the game interesting?  I think one of the more interesting plot devices in the game is the huge cast.  Each game has 108 Stars of Destiny.  While you usually need a guide to find all of them, you do get some interesting results from keeping them all alive and in your party.  For example, there’s random bits of backstory or unexplained world building.  A character in the first Suikoden, for example, reveals he has a teleportation ability.  It’s never used in the plot, or examined in more detail.  There’s Yuber and Persmerga who are basically two immortal enigmas locked in conflict.  At the end of the game in Suikoden, you tend to get a summation of each star and what happened to them.  For many of them, they die young.

I’m going to avoid the recent DS game and the side games, mostly because they’re either too recent or not from the main series.  While they are interesting, I think focusing mostly on the PS1 to PS2 era console games shows plot threads and differences more clearly.

Valeria was one of my favorite characters in the first Suikoden. She has a unique animation if you use her Falcon Rune.

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Breath of Fire is a series that, in my mind, hated the earlier games the farther you played the series.  In the first game, you’re Ryu the last of clan of Dragons, with a portentous scar who’s trying to avenge his lost family via fighting another clan.  You soon pick up a winged princess, Nina, who’s spunky enough to risk her life trying to fight her enemies.  The rest of the game is gathering elemental keys and fighting your way to face down against a goddess.

Breath of Fire's Nina is a fast mage using rapier weapons. (1993 JP, 1994 US)

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Wild ARMs is fondly remembered as a rpg that came out before Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation. When your competition is Beyond the Beyond, it’s not hard to be amazing.  The game used 2D sprites for exploration and 3D battles (which while interesting in the day, are now very dated.)  The composer Michiko Naruke is closely linked to the series and has written a wide range of Old West style music for it.  If you google Wild ARMs, you’ll easily find people posting the opening animation and the haunting whistling song that plays over it.

Wild ARMs games have dungeon puzzles that are solved with tools.

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