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Personally, a game with romantic subplots isn’t a selling point for me.  However, I do find the presence of romantic subplots or romantic subtext to be fascinating in games.  I think you can break down many of these romantic subplots into a couple of categories.  One would be “sexy” games which are frequently a JRPG and a dating sim combined.  Another would be games with canon pairings.  A final would be games with romantic subtext.

A “sexy” game is one where you tend to have a harem of girls that you can date, and the game tends to be packed with innuendo.  A good example of this is Ar Tonelico. This game plays around with some of the common elements in a dating game, and is advertised in ways that focus on the sexualized aspects of the game.  In the first game in the series, the plot specifically plays around with conventions.  For example, a common dating game plot is a man entering a room to find a girl wearing only a towel.  In the case of Ar Tonelico, a girl in a towel handcuffs the main character to a bed and says that she has to imprison him to keep him in her life.  The scene may have “sexy” imagery, but it’s intended (and is) creepy in the game.  At another point in the game, a cutscene involves a crystal being inserted into a female character with dialogue that makes the metaphor obvious.

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As graphical technology improved, you could show more detail on characters.  This meant, of course, that an artist could make more details in a character design without having them lost in the fact that the character is only 32 pixels high.  Needless to say, some characters look incredibly silly.  For some people, JRPGs are simply unplayable due to the character designs.  My problem with this criticism is that it tends to be phrased in sexist / homophobic / transphobic language.

The hero of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2 has a notably silly outfit. The sword is impractical, the clothing has many confusing layers, and the pizza is a confusing accessory.

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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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