Archive for March, 2009

Chrono Trigger: Special Attacks

Chrono Trigger‘s combat system is essentially the ATB system from Final Fantasy: each character has a gauge that fills up (at a rate determined by their Speed stat), and when it’s full, they can take an action, such as attacking an enemy or drinking a healing potion. When you use special “technique” attacks, however, things get a little different.

I talked recently about special attacks in Final Fantasy VI, including Cyan’s “sword techniques”. I mention this to avoid confusion: “Techniques” in CT have nothing to do with that. Instead, they take the place of spells. All Techniques require “Magic Points” to use, even the ones that clearly involve nothing more than swinging a sword around in a fancy way. Every character has their own unique set of Techniques. Some simply do more damage than a standard attack, while some have more spell-like effects, such as healing damage or putting enemies to sleep. But the special thing about them, the thing that makes Chrono Trigger combat different from standard ATB, is that many of them are affected by the geometry of the battlefield. There are basically two variants of this: those with ray effects, and those with burst effects. In either case, you target a specific enemy. Rays will effect anything in a straight line between your character and the target, while bursts affect everything within a certain distance of the target.

It’s not really a very advanced concept. Plenty of games before and since have had similar area-of-effect rules. But it combines oddly with the ATB system, particularly when you take into account two things: (1) You can’t move during combat, and (2) the enemy can. (Please understand that the player has absolutely no control over where the player characters put themselves when battle starts: even if you approach the monster from a different direction, the team will dutifully run to their assigned spots for that encounter when combat mode begins). The ultimate effect on gameplay is that you can wind up spending a little time waiting for the randomly-wandering foes to line up or cluster together in order to get the most out of your mana. Now, I complained about how Cyan’s sword techniques in FF6 forced the player to sit there and wait to use them, and considered that particular UI experiment to be a failure. But the CT system doesn’t force you to wait: it simply gives you an incentive to wait voluntarily. And I don’t often do so, but occasionally it’s worth it.

Voluntary waiting is also the effect of the other new feature of the Techniques: combinations. Specific pairs of characters — or even trios, supposedly, although I have yet to see this in action — can perform their Techniques together for synergetic effects. For example, Crono, the main character, has a “cyclone” Technique that lets him do burst damage by leaping into the middle of the enemies and swirling his sword around. Lucca, the tech girl, has a Technique that does a ray of fire damage. Do them together and Crono uses his swirling sword to deflect Lucca’s fire ray in all directions, doing a large amount of fire damage to all foes. (Weirdly, there’s another Technique where Crono does the same thing to Marle’s healing-aura Technique, in which case the deflected magic misses the monsters and hits all the PCs.) But in order to do a combo attack, all of the characters involved must be ready to act. Since everyone’s action gauge fills up at a different rate, this means sitting and waiting sometimes.

Chrono Trigger

OK, I realize I’m already in the middle of a JRPG. But The Brainy Gamer’s Vintage Game Club has just chosen Chrono Trigger as their latest game to collectively play though and discuss, and since it’s on the Stack, I may as well play along. And anyway, it looks like I’ll have plenty of time to play FF6 between Chrono Trigger sessions. The Club has a week-by-week schedule for synchronizing play, and I’ve just completed the first week’s allotment in a single session.

Apparently Chrono Trigger is considered by many to be the best JRPG ever. Having grown up as a PC gamer rather than a console gamer, I had no idea. The only reason I own a copy already is that it came with the anthologized Final Fantasy for Playstation, taking the place of FF3 (which still has only been released for Nintendo consoles). It was a collaboration between the creators of the Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Dragon Ball franchises. Of these, Final Fantasy is the only one I’m greatly familiar with, so that’s the main thing I’m comparing it to in my mind as I play.

The mechanics are basically Final Fantasy-like, with the ATB combat system and all, but the presentation is greatly different. Combat mode isn’t cleanly separated from exploration mode, but happens on the same screen. To support this, your entire party is always visible as distinct sprites, rather than lumped into a single unit like in most Final Fantasy games. (In these respects, we see Square catching up to what Ultima 6 did a few years earlier.) Random encounters don’t just happen to you suddenly, like pits you fall into, but instead, monsters are seen going about their monster business before you fight them — even when you walk into an ambush, there’s animation of the ambush being sprung, like a mini-cartoon, usually with some slapstick in it.

The characters themselves get to be more detailed than in a Final Fantasy, because they’re not squashed to the size of a map tile. For that matter, map tiles are a less noticable feature all round. Presumably the maps are still tile-based, but the tiles are never a constraint to movement, and the overland map looks extremely freeform.

Speaking of freedom on the overland map, I was surprised at just how much the game lets you wander around before getting down to the plot. You basically get the run of the continent, and probably another continent besides (there seems to be a ferry, although I didn’t take it). The game guides you pretty clearly, though. Wherever you go, everyone is talking about the Millennial Fair. The Fair is one of the closest things to your starting location, and it’s chock-a-block with interactive doodads to keep your attention focused there. At the fair, an accident with an experimental teleporter (invented by the protagonist’s meganekko friend) causes someone to disappear, leaving only a pendant behind. I went to pick up the pendant, figuring that it would be important in the investigation of what happened, only do discover that the game interpreted my action as a signal that I wanted the teleporter turned back on immediately so I could follow the missing person wherever she went. (A singularly irresponsible moment — who’s to say she wasn’t simply vaporized? We know from the title that it’s a time-travel game, but have the characters read the box?)

I was tempted at this point to go back to my last save, as I wasn’t finished exploring yet. But I kept on playing anyway, knowing that I’d be back: they wouldn’t have made all that world if they weren’t going to use it. And indeed, by now I’ve been back and again away. I’ll say this for the game: it moves at a pretty good clip. The story’s been pretty simple, and (perhaps a little ironic for a game about time travel) entirely focused on the present moment. That is, it hasn’t been going in for lingering mysteries or obvious set-ups for later events. It’s just a series of misadventures that your gang of anime stereotypes tumble into one after the other.

Final Fantasy VI: Boredom and Despair

Since nothing much interesting happened during my last session, let’s back up a bit and describe the beginning of the World of Ruin section of the game. After the dirigible wreck, the curtain opens on Celes waking up from a coma. Perennial FF bit-player Cid is looking after her, and she immediately develops a granddaughterly attachment to him. Yes, Celes, former General of the Imperial Army, has been reduced to childishness. This is really just par for the course for her, though. When we first encountered her, she was in a state of complete helplessness, imprisoned and interrogated by her former colleagues. Her one other big moment in the spotlight was one of forced feminization, shanghaied into impersonating a prima donna and singing about how she longs for a hero to rescue her. Progressive it ain’t. One imagines the producers saying “Whoa, Celes is career military? That’s not traditionally feminine at all! She might alienate female players, those delicate flowers. So we’d better wimp her up a bit more on the story level just to be on the safe side.”

But anyway, Celes is all alone in a broken world with Cid, who quickly takes her place in the sickbed. Cid says that there used to be other people on the island, but they “died of boredom and despair”. Once you leave the shack, you quickly realize two things about the world map: it’s radically changed, and you can’t reach most of it. You’re stuck on a small island with no way off. You naturally wander around for a while, but there’s nowhere to go and no goals to pursue. Perhaps you’re afraid at first of getting into random encounters, because you’ve got only one character and most combats are calibrated in difficulty for three or four. But in fact you have nothing to fear: the monsters on this island are so pathetic, they just die spontaneously even if you just stand there doing nothing.

I’m reminded a little of that essay about Metal Gear Solid 2, positing that it was designed specifically to deprive the player of expected rewards. On Cid’s island, the very activities you’re used to are stripped away: you can’t meaningfully explore, and you can’t meaningfully fight. All you can do is keep going back to visit Cid and monitor his deteriorating condition. Boredom and despair! Eventually Cid dies 1I’m told that there’s actually a way to cure him, but it’s obscure enough that most players are guaranteed to miss it unless they’re playing from a walkthrough. , and Celes attempts suicide by leaping off a cliff. This moment is accompanied by an instrumental arrangement of the aria Celes sang atop the castle in the opera scene, and the climb up the cliff is a visual echo of the ascent that set — reminding us again of Celes’ need to be rescued.

Of course the suicide attempt fails: she washes up on the beach, and shortly afterward manages to get off the island by means I won’t go into here. I’ve ranted before on multiple occasions about how the gameplay and the narrative in Final Fantasy essentially exist in different worlds. This whole sequence is a rare example of the opposite: the gameplay, including random encounters, reinforces the narrative and emphasizes the intended mood. It’s telling that this happens in a scene where you have access to only one character, giving the author more control than would normally be the case.

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1. I’m told that there’s actually a way to cure him, but it’s obscure enough that most players are guaranteed to miss it unless they’re playing from a walkthrough.

Final Fantasy VI: Time Limits

I’m progressing slowly, but I’m progressing. The latest roadblock is a scene with a time limit, recuing a child from a house that’s about to collapse. I don’t particularly like time limits at the best of times, and it seems to me that the Final Fantasy games have aspects that make them particularly annoying. Random encounters are delays, and they’re delays that crop up unpredicatably and uncontrollably while you’re trying to do something else. It makes me impatient, and once I’m impatient, I start bristling at little things like the seconds spent on uninterruptible UI actions like bringing up the combat interface and shutting it down again.

It follows pretty close on the heels of another timed sequence, too: the escape from the Floating Continent. There have been time limits in other Final Fantasy games, but not with this density. That escape wasn’t so bad, though, because the fights were winnable quickly: there was usually only one foe, so everyone dogpiled on and wiped him out without having to wait for their ATB timers to fill up a second time. In the new one, I only have one character to use, and she has to take on multiple foes at once. The closest thing I have to a power that can wipe out an entire group at once is the Esper summons, and if I use those, I have to sit through an impatience-aggravating summon animation. It may actually be worthwhile to run away from battles for once.

Final Fantasy VI: Special Interfaces

If Final Fantasy V was a big experiment in different character abilities, Final Fantasy VI is where they started experimenting with different ways to activate those abilities. Several characters have special interfaces in the place of the series of menus that is game’s standard for most interactions.

The simplest of these is Cyan’s “Sword Technique” interface. As he gains levels, Cyan gains a number of different sword moves, and each move has a number. When you select “SwdTech” in the combat interface, a progress bar starts filling up, waiting for you to press a button. The bar is labelled with numbers; pressing the button activates the technique corresponding to how long you waitied before pressing it. It’s an interesting approach to take in combination with the ATB system, because you can imagine weighing the power of the more advanced moves against the time you have to spend standing there waiting while the monsters still attack you. But since this also makes you delay giving orders to the entire rest of your party, it seems hardly worthwhile. So in practice, I almost never use anything other than Technique #1. Maybe this will change as I learn better techniques, but I’m tentatively willing to call this particular UI experiment a failure. And it seems Squaresoft agrees; I don’t think they reused this interface in any later game.

Sabin’s interface, now: that’s been passed on. Sabin is an expert in unarmed combat, and has a system apparently inspired by the special moves in Street Fighter-style fighting games. When you select “Blitz” in the combat interface, you have to press a series of buttons and/or D-pad directions, such as left-right-left or triangle-square-down-up, to indicate the move. If you enter an invalid combo, Sabin does nothing. And that’s a serious possibility. Not only does it require memorization (or, alternately, note-taking), but I find that the moves containing diagonals can be difficult to execute: a sequence like down-down/left-left pretty much has to be done in a rolling motion, and it’s far too easy to roll too far or not far enough with the controller I’m using. Still, it’s a lot easier than doing a special move in a real fighting game, because you can take your time and don’t have to worry about being interrupted.

Setzer’s special-move interface, on the other hand, is entirely timing-based. Or rather, if you’re me, it’s luck-based, but gives you just enough illusion of control to make it feel like you might be able to get the effects you want if you could just time it a little more precisely. It’s one of those slot-machine-like things where you get to stop the spinning wheels, one by one, by pressing a button — get them to match, and you can do a devastating magic attack, or summon a random summonable for free, or various other effects. Effects aside, the basic interface here is one I’ve seen as a minigame or bonus round in a few other Japanese games, including Pokémon and, in a slightly varied form, Super Mario Land. I suppose there are people who have mastered the skill and excel at getting Japanese bonuses. I personally can never do anything with it, and was glad when I acquired an artifact that replaced the Slots interface with something I could actually use: a skill that lets Setzer simply deal damage by throwing money at the problem. The interface to that? You just select it in a menu.

Final Fantasy VI: Repetitive Activity Revisited

I wish I could say that I made some real progress in my last session. I put together a team that could beat the ninjas and dragons of the floating continent — and I emphasize that these are not just your garden variety IronFists or WireyDragons or any of the other qualified variations encountered earlier in the game, but Ninjas and Dragons, the definitive versions, as befits the guardians of the secret source of all the world’s magic. But they’re not the only things keeping visitors out. The whole floating continent is a maze with trigger-spots that change it when trod on, and I managed to get into a position where a crucial trigger-spot for moving forward seemed to be no longer accessible. I had no idea that was even possible.

I had no choice to go back to the airship, and while I was there I figured I might as well check up on a sidequest that I hadn’t managed to finish, and that took me near the Veldt, so I figured I should take Gau and Strago out for a spin to see if they could pick up any new moves. 1I’ve described the mechanics around Gau and Strago in previous posts, but to recap: Gau is a wild-boy who attacks by imitating monsters. In order to learn how to imitate a monster, he has to observe it in the Veldt, which is kind of like a retirement home for things you’ve defeated elsewhere (even things that are highly location-specific, like security robots). Strago is a Blue Mage who can learn specific monster attacks as spells. Unlike Gau, he doesn’t have to learn them in the Veldt, but it’s a good place for him to pick up things he missed. Within three or four encounters, Gau learned the secrets of the Ninja. But the Dragon I encountered shortly afterward bested my party. And once that happened, I didn’t want to leave. Not until Gau could do the Dragon.

To change topics out of the blue for a moment: The first computer I ever programmed was a TRS-80 Model 1. One of the first simple BASIC programs I came up with was one that filled in randomly-selected pixels in an infinite loop. The slowness of TRS-80 BASIC (considered slow even in its day; serious TRS-80 programmers used assembly language) meant that you could sit there and watch it fill in the pixels one by one. Eventually it would fill in the entire screen, 2Years later, I tried replicating the program in GW-BASIC on an IBM PCjr, and was horrified to discover that it did not fill in the entire screen. The random number generator was so bad that you wound up with a bunch of neat diagonal stripes instead. but you could spend a while waiting for it to randomly select the last unfilled pixel. In fact, you could spend a while waiting for the second-to-last pixel to fill in, and then you’d spend on average twice as long waiting for the very last. 3Or, hm, maybe not. What I really mean is that the expected number of random choices to fill in one specific pixel is twice the expected number of choices to fill in either of two specific pixels. But the ratio of the expectation values is not necessarily the expectation of the ratio. But I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader.

Such were the amusements we found for ourselves in the days before JRPGs. At any rate, I spent some time in the Veldt, doing the things that were tedious when last I played, but which just now seem lazily relaxing. (Such is the effect of context on one’s gaming experience.) Everyone’s learned more of the standard spells. Strago picked up a couple of blue spells that I didn’t know existed, in one case by watching Gau use it in animal-rage mode. I’ll have to remember that that can happen. Ironically, Gau is probably the character to benefit the least from the exercise. Yes, I did eventually meet the Dragon again (or maybe a different one), but the entry for it is so far down on Gau’s list that I doubt I’ll have the patience to scroll down to it often. Gau would be so much more useful if I could rearrange that list.

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1. I’ve described the mechanics around Gau and Strago in previous posts, but to recap: Gau is a wild-boy who attacks by imitating monsters. In order to learn how to imitate a monster, he has to observe it in the Veldt, which is kind of like a retirement home for things you’ve defeated elsewhere (even things that are highly location-specific, like security robots). Strago is a Blue Mage who can learn specific monster attacks as spells. Unlike Gau, he doesn’t have to learn them in the Veldt, but it’s a good place for him to pick up things he missed.
2. Years later, I tried replicating the program in GW-BASIC on an IBM PCjr, and was horrified to discover that it did not fill in the entire screen. The random number generator was so bad that you wound up with a bunch of neat diagonal stripes instead.
3. Or, hm, maybe not. What I really mean is that the expected number of random choices to fill in one specific pixel is twice the expected number of choices to fill in either of two specific pixels. But the ratio of the expectation values is not necessarily the expectation of the ratio. But I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader.

Final Fantasy VI: Onward to Ruin

It’s about time I got back to this, don’t you think? Last night’s session was pretty short, and didn’t really accomplish anything, so let’s just have a brief recap and status update.

When last we left our eclectic band, they were stalling by finishing up side-quests before tackling General Kefka on the floating continent that’s the focus of all the world’s magic. As soon as they defeat him, they will plunge irreversibly into Part 2, which takes place in the wracked and riven remnants of the world they knew. I’m told is called the World of Ruin. And frankly, I think I’m ready for it.

I wish I could say the same for my characters. The party I sent forth to conquer the floating continent this time was repeatedly and frustratingly trounced by roving dragons, ninjas, and weird abominations. I know I managed to get past this bit before, but I don’t remember who I had in my party at that point — presumably someone more useful in combat than the combinations I’ve tried this time around. I’m pretty clear on the story so far: empire, magicite, espers, etc. But what was I doing with the party? I know I was trying to keep advancing all the characters, both in levels and in trainable skills, so I kept swapping them around and changing their equipment. It’ll take a little while to get back into this. Maybe I’ll know what I’m doing by the time I destroy the world again and start advancing the plot.