Just doing my nightly Kotaku crawl when I came across a Let’s Talk About Star Ocean 2 article. Holy nostalgia, man.
The article itself was really talking about how bad the dialog/localization was in the original game (apparently remedied a bit by the non-digital, PSP-only re-release) which, like most things in 1999, I don’t remember being much of an issue. What I mainly remember is: sci-fi JRPG, action combat, 60+ hour campaign, Private Actions (a pretty novel method of character-building at the time), and 80+ endings. And those Skills. Good lord, those skills.
I keep thinking that if I had infinite time, that I would replay all these PS1 games, even if the experience itself would not quite be the same. It’s hard going back though. As the sidebar indicates, I’m sorta-maybe playing FF4 for the first time (started due to the Japan trip) and it’s tough getting past the “X and Y were bad game design decisions” sort of mentality. I can’t even imagine the field day I’d have with games like Star Ocean 2.
Still, I have some rather pleasant memories of that whole gaming era, which landed straight in my formative high school years. Star Ocean 2 doesn’t really come close to FF7 or Xenogears, but it ranks up there with the LUNAR series as being an unexpected delight.
So my PSX problems from the other day were mostly solved by stumbling across an emulator website that specifically had a PSX-2-PSP section that already did the heavy lifting for you in terms of format conversion. From there, I simply had to choose any of their 1301 offerings
on sale to download.
And therein lies the rub: what would I actually play?
This September, I will be 31-years old. Holy shit, right? I grew up on the crest of the videogame revolution and rode it rather thoroughly until the end of the PS2. I was there to play games like A Link to the Past and Chrono Trigger and FF6 and Super Metroid while they were current. I still remember, with perfect clarity, unwrapping the Playstation for Christmas and popping in FF7 for the first time. When Tifa and Barret appeared onscreen together in the 7th Heaven Bar, my father walked by and quipped “Wow, that’s pretty progressive of them to include interracial dating.” This was in 1997, mind you. After that, I made sure to never play RPGs when other people were around.
Point being, the original Playstation era was one of unparallelled nostalgia for me. These were prime gaming years in my prime (14-17 years old). I still remember the shivers I felt when watching the promo video for Xenogears that was included in the packaging for Parasite Eve. In fact, I just spent 30 minutes trying to find that video, and I felt those same shivers sixteen years later.
Nevertheless, I sat looking at the PSX game list for a good ten minutes without selecting anything. Believe me, I understand the intoxicating effects of nostalgia and the risk one takes in replaying old games generally; not only is the game unlikely to hold up, you risk souring your memories by subjecting yourself to downright primitive graphics and design. But all of that was not actually my concern. My concern was: I still remember all these games.
For example, I was looking pretty intensely at SaGa Frontier 2 for a bit, as I remember it being a fun game with a beautiful art direction. But… I still remember the strategies I used to defeat the game, the places where I got stuck, and the end result of the progression. I’m pretty sure I remember crafting a pistol that shot rockets in Parasite Eve – and that awful final boss encounter. I have talked about Novelty being the essence of fun before, and my particular problem is that the intervening decades have not diminished my memory of the experience of these games. “Something something riding bikes,” in other words.
There were some exceptions in the list. I let out an audible squeal when I saw Tactics Ogre. That and Final Fantasy Tactics seemed perfect for this little PSP experiment of mine, as they remain games I still somehow consider fun despite knowing everything about their systems. Maybe it is because a tactical game has many more possible permutations than your average RPG battle system? I felt no hesitation with Xenogears either, nor Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, although I’m going to hold off on FF7 until I play it via Steam.
For the rest of the list, I think what I’ll end up doing is actually picking titles I haven’t played. Enough people have talked about Legend of Dragoon to overcome my memories of renting the game and setting it down 15 minutes later. Suikoden 2 has been hyped beyond all reason, so that’s another easy one to test. Beyond that though? I dunno. I would solicit answers from you, dear readers, but I fear it would just be a bunch of “already played that” replies.
So allow me to turn the tables a bit: what PSX games would you actually play? Is there a title you would like to play again, or perhaps one you’d like to check off your bucket list? Would you even play any at all?
[Fake Edit]: The PSX-2-PSP website didn’t actually solve anything; all the PSX come up as “corrupted files” even though they are fine on my computer. It’s almost enough to drive a man to legitimacy.
In the midterm period inbetween steady access to the internet, I decided now was as good a time as any to actually get around to playing some of the PlayStation games I own but never bothered turn on. My first choice? As the title suggests: Final Fantasy XII.
All I can say is… yikes.
To say that I was a Squaresoft fanboy growing up is an understatement of the decade(s). Indeed, Final Fantasy 7 remains my #2 game of all time – and that is despite having first played FF6 on the SNES when it came out. While the “back to the roots” FF9 nearly derailed my fanboism outright, FFX quickly set things back on the right track. Sadly, when I heard that FFXI was going to be an online-only MMO, I pretty much cut ties with the company; I stayed long enough to pick up FFX-2, but that had the dubious distinction of being the only FF game I ever sold back to a video game shop for store credit (after beating it, of course). Looking back, I think my lack of engagement with the series had more to do with college and life changes than feelings of “betrayal,” but regardless FFX-2 was the last FF game I played.
Now, I’m not saying anything necessarily about the gameplay of FFXII. To be honest, in the 30 minutes I’ve been “playing” I haven’t seen all that much of it. And if I recall correctly, FFXII was widely criticized as being non-interactive. But a more pressing concern right now is how awful the game looks on my TV. The default view is double-letterboxed such that it easily loses 15″ off the TV screen. And even then the pixelation is horrendous.
I technically bought FF7 on a Steam sale a while back (because, you know, FF7) and it’s entirely possible I will encounter similar graphical issues. But to an extent I almost see this as an existential threat to older games. Or, rather, older games that were straddling the cutting-edge for their time. Things that seemed ground-breaking for its time in comparison to more sprite-based games have looped around into barely-playable nonsense graphics in less than 10 years.
It kinda makes you wonder though, whether or not this will be a recurring issue as time goes by or if it was a specific moment in computer graphics history. Personally, I’m leaning towards the latter. After all, the original Crysis has held up exceptionally well and even the original Far Cry wasn’t that bad. But have you tried playing KotOR lately? I muscled through that a few years ago, and it left me sore with the effort. It wasn’t even the graphics really, but little things like not being able to pan the camera upwards. It’s Star Wars and you got huge alien cities and you can’t look much farther than the main character’s low-polygon ass.
As you may have picked up on in my Hearthstone Impression post, I am a huge fan of its UI. In fact, it is one of the best UIs I have ever seen in a videogame. Which is… kind of an unusual thing to say about videogames in general, right? Who cares about UI anyway?
Well, technically everyone. A game’s UI is how you interact with the game itself, or glean useful information about the game state. Sometimes you can get away without having an UI at all, like with LIMBO. Other times the designers might get all fancy and try to integrate the UI into the game world itself, like with Dead Space. Most times though, a game’s UI is simply there, and the most you can hope from it is to get the hell out of your way (Skyrim).
It is an extremely rare game that features a UI that actually makes the game itself better. Hearthstone is pretty much the only example I can think of. But why? Let’s break it down:
Emulates the Warcraft Experience
This might sound obvious, but Hearthstone: Heroes of Azeroth is derived from the Warcraft franchise and prominently features characters from said game world. It is one thing to use the likenesses though, and a completely different thing to emulate the color palette, the visuals, and the ineffable mood of the game as well. Everything from the menus to the animations to the sounds feels like it could have been pulled straight out of either WoW or Warcraft 3. In fact, I am pretty sure they did outright copy/paste a lot of the sound effects, at a minimum.
The result of this is that an otherwise completely new gameplay experience will instantly feel familiar to someone who may not have ever played a CCG before. And more subtly, assuming you still have fond memories of the other games, some of those are likely to bleed through via nostalgia.
UI Elegantly Informs the Gameplay
Digital card games differ from regular video games in that their UI essentially is the entire game; beyond the cards themselves, the rest of a CCG match takes place in each player’s head. Hearthstone is literally the first CCG I have played that has attempted to – and successfully accomplished – bring(ing) the mental game back into the visual realm.
For example, when your hero plays a Weapon card, it clanks and rattles next to your hero, while the hero tile itself lifts off the board and goes smashing into your intended target. Then, at the end of your turn, the weapon card (which has long since ceased being a rectangular object) gets hidden behind an oval sheet of iron, which sounds and looks like a full-plate helm shutting. You don’t have to know anything about the specific rules of Hearthstone to know intuitively, from this very UI design, that A) weapon cards let your hero attack, and B) your hero can’t use the weapon during an opponent’s turn.
There are “little” touches like this all over the place in Hearthstone. Creatures with Taunt have a different shape on the battlefield to distinguish them. Creature with Death-rattle (an ability that triggers on their death) has a little skull and crossbones icon on them, whereas a creature with a normal triggered ability has a lightning bolt. Even if you did not know what those icons meant at a glance, hovering your cursor over the creature quickly brings up an unobtrusive cheat sheet description. This is a UI scheme that both enables and enhances your ability to “grok” all the moving pieces extremely quickly.
3) Genre Game-Changing Innovation
Seriously guys, this screenshot has pretty much ruined all other CCGs for me:
If you are not quite sure what you are looking at, it is pretty simple conceptually: you can see what your opponent is looking at. If your opponent is hovering their cursor over your creature (to perhaps read its text), the creature glows. If they then cycle through their hand looking for a way to turn the game around, you see their cards glow one at a time. If they decide to target you with a creature or spell, a huge arrow appears where their cursor is, and you can watch as they debate with themselves as to which would be the better move.
This sort of thing is simply unprecedented in a digital CCG. And mandatory from now on, IMO.
Not convinced? Think about playing Chess in person versus playing against someone online. The pieces are all the same, the board is the same, everything is the same… except for the feedback. When you are face-to-face with someone, you can see where they are looking on the board, you can see them pick up a piece and start to move it before putting it back again. Aside from the mind games this opens up, at a minimum it might give you pause to consider that Bishop over in the corner that you had forgotten about until your opponent had briefly considered moving it.
Like I mentioned earlier, CCG battles always took place in the theater of the mind. You never really knew what your opponent was thinking or about to do… unless you happened to be lucky enough to be dueling them in-person. Can you imagine other games operating with this lack of feedback? Think about playing a FPS in which you could not hear another player walking or even which way they were facing when you did see them. An incredible amount of nuance would be lost.
Finally, at the bare minimum, consider the benefits of knowing that your opponent is actually at their chair and not AFK. I’m more than willing to wait a few minutes for someone to make their move as long as I know they are actually in the process of determining what move to make. Compare that to most other CCGs like Scrolls or SolForge or Magic Online where you are basically left watching the round timer count down.
4) Evokes the Physical Space
This last one is a lot more subtle than the others, but welcome nonetheless. Essentially, everything in Hearthstone feels… real. Like a three-dimensional object, with heft and contours and such. You don’t play cards by just clicking on them and then clicking on a target, you actually have to drag them from your hand and drop them on the target (assuming the card doesn’t automatically turn into a ball of flame or whatever midway through the action).
The way creatures are handled is similarly finely detailed. You might have noticed how creatures are sort of oval shaped, right? Well look at an unplayed creature card:
That’s right, the creature oval “breaks off” from the card when you play it. When a huge creature is played, the oval crashes onto the playing surface, creating shock waves and a small crater. Attacking with said creature involves the oval flying towards the enemy hero, smashing into them and shaking the screen. You start to forget you are playing a CCG at all as it feels sorta like a miniature game at this point. And yet there is still a connection between the cards and their products. Compare that to Scrolls, which also summons creatures but has no real tie between the product (parchment scroll) and the result (animated sprite).
And let’s not forget how this oval thing also solves the problem in CCGs when it’s not easy to distinguish between creatures, enchantments, spells, and so on. Cards are generally of uniform size, and the artwork (which usually takes up 50% of the real estate) can sometimes work against your quick assumptions by having a bunch of dragons or whatever on a “Deal 5 damage” spell. This is not a problem in Hearthstone, as all creature cards have ovals inside them.
Seriously, this is like goddamn paperclip levels of elegance here.
As I mentioned in my Impression post, Hearthstone feels both visceral and whimsical simultaneously. The further pillow fight analogy comes from the sense of “slamming” the cards down on the table, almost feeling the creatures smash into your opponent’s face. Then there are the spell effects like Consecrate that could have easily gotten away with simply dealing 2 damage to all enemies and been done with it. Nope: all your opponent’s creatures and hero tile are lifted high off the table as cracks of golden light bleed through, and then everything slams down at once.
The whole thing reminds me of how it feels to roll dice in D&D campaign – the physicality of the action imparts a gravitas completely independent of the otherwise unremarkable generation of a random number. For Hearthstone to evoke this feeling using just sounds and what could be Flash animation is pretty amazing.
If CCGs are not your proverbial cup of tea, it’s unlikely that even an amazing UI is going to change your mind. If you enjoy the genre at all though, or are merely ambivalent, then suggest you give Hearthstone a try at release. Watching Youtube videos of other people playing does not replicate the experience dropping late-game bombs on your opponent and watching them futilely cycling through their hand trying to come up with a response.
“That’s just the nostalgia talking.”
After reading Liore’s post about starting to play Final Fantasy 7 for the first time (from the latest Steam sale), I started thinking about nostalgia. After all, I still consider FF7 in my top three favorite videogames of all time. I have undoubtedly played other games for longer – and it’s likely that I’ve played “better” games since then – but a component of what I describe as “favorite” includes impact on my life.
Nostalgia is always used as a pejorative in videogame discussions, a way of dismissing the assertion that X is better than Y, or that X is still good at all. Hell, I have probably used the term in the same manner. But it seems clear to me now that the “charge” of nostalgia is a bit too sweeping. Sure, sometimes you think something is (still) good simply because you liked it when you were younger. But sometimes you do just so happen to experience a revolution or cultural event as a child. Was the moon landing “just nostalgia talking”? Was MLK’s speeches “just nostalgia talking?”
The cultural impact of FF7 in gaming specifically cannot be overstated. It has sold 10 million copies as of 2010, which might not sound impressive for a game that came out in 1998, but keep in mind that that still makes it the best-selling Final Fantasy title of all time. It pretty much popularized the (J)RPG genre in the United States, and arguably sold the original PlayStation by itself. The graphics, which admittedly don’t hold up well at all today, were revolutionary at the time. And the music? The end of Disc 1? One-Winged Angel? There is a reason why so many people cosplay as FF7 characters and not, say, characters from FF6 or FF4 or FF9.
But let’s assume that is just nostalgia talking. Well… when does nostalgia not talk? Is everything from the past suspect? Do things only get better over time? Are all the good things in gaming just conveniently occurring right now? (Hint: Many MMO bloggers are saying no.) I am not entirely sure that a hyper-focus on the present is any less ridiculous than a longing for the past.
I will be the first to admit I have criticized someone for having “rose-colored glasses” in regards to wistfully looking back to, say, TBC WoW game design. And I do actually still stand by those criticisms: there is nothing about TBC that I don’t honestly and truly believe Wrath improved (with the exception of Kara, maybe). But… I dunno. I’m not sure anymore that I can legitimately claim “that’s just nostalgia talking” in one instance and not levy the same damnation on a game like FF7. Vanilla WoW or even TBC WoW were just as groundbreaking at the time, in their contexts, as FF7 or anything else. Cataclysm? Much less so.
Nostalgia remains a tricky subject though. Can something be both legitimately revolutionary and not hold up to today’s scrutiny? Probably. Like… Pong, maybe. And surely there are others too, although the first thing that came to mind, Super Mario Bros, actually holds up IMO. Secret of Mana? The music alone buoys the game. And, again, I’m not entirely sure why a game “not holding up” is necessarily a deficiency of the game anyway. A timeless classic in other mediums remains amazing by definition, but it is not as though we continuously invent new ways of reading books or watching movies. Meanwhile, there are millions of different iterations on combat systems or simple object interaction. Holding games to the same standards of books and other mediums seems like an unfair comparison in that regard.
And really, who cares if it is “just nostalgia”? Regardless of whether FF7 holds up, it had a significant impact on my (gaming) life if nothing else. I created save files in front of every CG cutscene and showed my friends when they came for sleep-overs. Remember the
Mako Junon Cannon firing? I was showing them that one and my friend David quipped “Is that the gun?” when the camera was panning to the side turrets. I paused a beat and then said “No, that’s the gun” as the Cannon came on-screen. That IRL moment couldn’t get more cinematic if we tried.
As I mentioned at the top, I have undoubtedly played other games for longer amounts of time, and probably have played objectively better games too. Nevertheless, I’m not entirely sure whether my favorite games of all time list have really changed. To be honest, I haven’t thought about it all that much. Bastion was good enough to dislodge some SNES game, surely, but which one? Hell, can I even get myself to play my supposedly favorite games again? And if I can’t, should that even mean anything?
I dunno. I also purchased FF7 during the latest Steam sale, and am looking forward to playing it again with no mods (besides the music one that makes it sound like the PS1 original). Will it hold up? Will my opinion on it change? We’ll see. Maybe not soon, but eventually. And then perhaps I should give Xenogears and Final Fantasy Tactics another try too, seeing as they hold spots #1 and #3 respectfully.
Just for fun, the following is the list of old games/systems/etc that I’m selling to that website:
- Nintendo console w/ cords
- Nintendo console without cords (may not work)
- Two Original controllers
- Nintendo Advantage controller (arcade-style gamepad)
- Blaster Master
- Metal Gear
- Battle Chess
- Super Mario Bros
- Super Mario Bros 2
- Super Mario Bros 3 (two copies)
- Dr Mario
- Metroid (+instructions)
- Mega Man 3
- Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse
- Top Gun
- Duck Tales
- Super Nintendo console w/ cords
- Original controller
- 3rd party controller (unknown brand, has turbo and slow buttons)
- Mouse and Mouse pad (two mouse pads) for Mario Paint
- Zombies Ate My Neighbors (+box plus instructions)
- Chrono Trigger (+box plus instructions)
- Illusion of Gaia (+box plus instructions)
- Populous (+box plus instructions)
- The Chessmaster
- Secret of Mana
- Sim City (+box plus instructions)
- Super Metroid (+box plus instructions)
- TMNT Tournament Fighters (+instructions)
- Star Fox (+instructions)
- Mario Paint (+instructions)
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (+instructions)
- Super Mario All-Stars
- Final Fantasy 3
- Beavis & Butthead (+box plus instructions)
- Jurassic Park (+box plus instructions)
- Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (+box)
- Streets of Rage 2 (+box)
- Madden ’94 (+box)
- Nintendo 64 console w/ cords and box
- Two Original controllers
I seem to have misplaced all my N64 games, but I still have boxes/instructions for:
- The Legend of Zelda: Orcarina of Time Collector’s edition box + instructions
- Perfect Dark box + instructions
- Conker’s Bad Fur Day box + instructions
- Turok 2: Seeds of Evil box + instructions
- Golden Eye: 007 box + instructions
- Star Fox 64 box + instructions
Similar to the N64 situation, I have loose sets of instructional manuals for the following games:
- Battletoads (NES)
- Super Mario 64 (N64)
- Wave Race 64 (N64)
- Gamecube console w/ cords
- Four Original controllers (silver, purple, black x2)
- Resident Evil Zero (+case and instructions)
- Super Smash Bros Melee (+case and instructions)
- Tales of Symphonia (+case and instructions)
The whole collection above is being bought for $375. I did do some research beforehand, and realize that a lot of those SNES games could fetch ~$50 by themselves. Indeed, Conker’s Bad Fur Day for N64 could have sold for $45 to the same website – it is supposedly a very Rare game (get it, get it… oh nevermind). Regardless, I feel pretty comfortable with $375 if only because it saves me the trouble of having to micromanage dozens of individual eBay auctions.
Finally, for the record, I had more games for these systems than listed above; I just had a tendency to sell them back to the used game place for store credit.
I am not entirely sure I will ever sell my Playstation collection though. Final Fantasy Tactics, FF7, Xenogears, Tenchu 1 & 2, Chrono Cross, Silent Hill… sigh. Soon it will be 15 years since any of these cases were opened, but I suppose there are lines even I won’t yet cross. Then again, none of those games are backwards compatible with the PS3, so once my PS2 shuts down for good… damn.
I am a big fan of digital games. In fact, I am having a difficult time remembering the last actually physical game I have purchased. The Greatest Hits version of Final Fantasy XII (still shrink-wrapped)? Or… yeah, probably Fallout 3 for PC – unless Wrath of the Lich King counts, anyway. As you can imagine, I skipped this entire console cycle and plan to continue holding out until I at least see if the Xbox 720 and PS4 are going to be backwards compatible.
At first, my purchasing habits were driven more by pragmatism than anything else. With the exclusion of a ridiculous find of Fallout 1 & 2 bundled for $15 and Planescape: Torment bundled similarly at a Media Play (anyone remember those?), computer games had always seemed stuck in the realm of permanent MSRP or mislabeled bargain bin treasure. Meanwhile, the local used game dealership offered a nice selection of $25 titles that you could eventually turn around sell back for $10 or so. Between the cheaper games and the likelihood of four-player split-screen shenanigans, there really was no contest.
Then… Steam happened. And cable internet. And WoW too.
Over time, I realized I no longer felt the need to “own” my games anymore. Keeping track of all the cartridges and discs started being a chore, and god help you if you misplaced the registration code for a PC game that you still actually had the disc(s) for. If legally all we are buying is a license instead of an actual good, then why could I not play Diablo 2 for a three-month period when I couldn’t find the case? Between that nonsense and how frequently I found myself downloading no-CD cracks for games I bought, it was really just a matter of time until I started eschewing gaming packaging altogether if I could help it.
What brought all this up to me again is that I am moving to a new apartment this week. While rummaging around in long-forgotten closets, I came across my NES and SNES collections; the wave of nostalgia nearly rendered me unconscious. While I did act on the daydream of plugging the consoles back up in college one time, these pieces of electronics haven’t otherwise seen the light of day for almost a decade. Was I really going to pack them up and move them to a closet in the new place? Would my theoretical future child have the slightest bit of interest in daddy’s ancient consoles in 2020’s era of (mobile) games? Hell, would these things still even work?
Holding onto the Chrono Trigger and Super Metroid and Secret of Mana cartridges impacted me more than I thought it would, even as I was cataloging their condition to sell to a website. It is pretty well understood how ownership of a physical good can influence your perception of its value, so that should not have been a surprise to me. However, I could not help but think: in a post-ownership world, is anyone going to feel this way again?
Maybe our kids still will. After all, I never held onto a Mass Effect disc, but still choked up a bit after uninstalling. A digital version isn’t the same as holding onto a piece of plastic that has been in your life for 20 years, but… well, it will likely be easier to play again than any of my N64 games which are permanently MIA.
P.S. The website I am using is DKOldies.com, whose prices seem pretty reasonable. If you know of a better place, by all means let me know – I simply don’t have the interest in playing the eBay game when I could ship everything to a single location
Although it shouldn’t be, I found it somewhat emotionally difficult to uninstall Mass Effect 3 this weekend. I haven’t played the game in more than five months, and I had not planned to start again either. All the extra DLC feels moot to me after the endings, and while the multiplayer was surprisingly good, I got my fill of it after a few weeks.
There is no particular reason for me to feel this way.
And yet… uninstalling may as well be the kiss of death. I can always reinstall later, of course, but the mere knowledge of a 5-6 hour download is enough to send my thoughts elsewhere. For a while, I had entertained a fantasy that I would replay the entire series again, start to finish, this time as Renegade FemShep. The whole ending debacle stymied that fantasy, but there always seemed to be a spark of hope that I would come back around and just do it.
But… not anymore. I need the hard drive space. And I probably need to move on for real, like I thought I already had. No reason to keep holding onto those old pictures of your exes.
In other news, I uninstalled Diablo 3 this weekend and felt relief. Of course, I did so after cashing out my gold, although the exchange rate is a whopping $0.52 per million gold right now. I did not talk about it, but I booted D3 up two weeks ago and went ahead and beat Diablo on Inferno, just to say I did so. The gear inflation/power creep/nerfs made it feel like a completely different game.
But then again, I am not sure I enjoyed the game that it had been all that much anyway.