Archive for December, 2007

Pokémon: Hardware Compatibility

I haven’t even mentioned my problems with trading. There are still several pokémon that I won’t be able to get any other way, either because they’re not available in the Blue version, or because the game forced me to choose a single pokémon out of two or three options. Since I started playing again, I’ve gotten together with one friend who had an old Gameboy and the red version, both untouched for years. We were all set to trade (or, more accurately, he was all set to charitably give me what he no longer had any interest in), but we hit a snag: he had a Gameboy Pocket, and I had a Gameboy Advance. And Nintendo, for whatever reason, saw fit to make the cables incompatible.

Now, for all I know there may be sound technical reasons for this. Maybe the two devices transfer data at different speeds or something. Or maybe the only difference is in the shape of the plug. It’s been difficult to get information about this. All I can say with any certainty is that, although Nintendo has made a “universal” Game Link adapter before the GBA, they never made an adapter for connecting the GBA to earlier versions. I’ve seen mention of a third-party adapter that might work, something billed as allowing you to use your old Gameboy cables with a GBA, but (a) it requires an old cable to plug into it and (b) it’s described in such vague terms that I don’t know for sure that it’ll do what I want anyway.

At this point, I’m thinking that the most cost-effective solution might actually be to buy a second GBA off ebay. That way I’d have everything necessary to consummate trades regardless of what hardware the other party has — indeed, all the other party would need to provide is the cartridge. It may even be cheaper than the adapters I’d otherwise need. My only hesitation is that doing trades between two Gameboys that are both mine, possibly by myself in the privacy of my room, is awfully close to “trading pokémon with myself”, which I’ve already gone on record as calling sad. (If I hadn’t made such a comment, I could probably do it without embarassment, of course. Heck, just playing Pokémon Blue at all in 2007 is something a lot of people would consider embarassing.)

Pokémon: Mewtwo and all that remains

I have to admit there’s something of an oversight in my last post. Given that I was facing opponents stronger than my own pokémon, why don’t I just catch some of them? Then I’d have pokémon just as powerful as what I was facing.

Mainly it’s just habit. Throughout the game, I’ve been trying to raise the strongest pokémon I could, and that means catching them at low levels and raising them by hand.

Also, my ultimate goal wasn’t just to successfully face the random encounters in the Unknown Dungeon, but rather, to face and capture Mewtwo, the single most powerful pokémon in the game. I didn’t really know if I could face him. Sure, I had the Master Ball, but would it be enough? What if I threw it and missed? Maybe I would have to put him to sleep first, like I did for the Legendary Birds.

Anticlimactically, this turned out not to be the case. When I finally reached the end of the dungeon, the fight was over with a single lob. Huzzah! Mewtwo is mine, and is now named Adrian. As a result, there is nothing left in the game that poses any difficulty. Completing my pokédex to the extent that I can is just a matter of spending the time to fill in the gaps.

Some of the remaining types can be caught, but a few must be evolved. The strange thing is, even in the cases where I can just stride into the Unknown Dungeon and catch an evolved form, I have some inclination to evolve a pokémon that I already have. And I think this is because I’m playing it on a Gameboy.

You see, as I see it, there are two basic modes in which you can play a game. (You can certainly cut it finer, but generally speaking, regardless of what else you’re doing, you’re operating in one of these two modes.) Either you’re playing the game for a particular experience, or you’re playing it just to pass the time. I’d compare these two modes to seeing a movie and going for a walk: one can complain that a movie is too long, has too much “padding” or “filler” material in it, but it’s hard to imagine saying that about a walk through the woods, where spending time is the whole point. These modes correspond roughly to “core” and “casual” games, and also to what I’ve termed “challenges” and “activities”, but not absolutely: you can have a goal-oriented game with challenges in it that’s still played mainly in the pastime mode. In fact, that’s what I’d argue that Pokémon is. And it fits into that role mainly just by being played on a Gameboy, the archetypal pastime platform.

Pokémon: More Grind

Away from my usual devices until January, I devote some attention to the Unknown Dungeon, haunt of Mewtwo. This is a mazelike area with frequent encounters with wild pokémon of about level 50 and up — approximately as strong as my strongest pokémon, but more numerous and, unlike the champion trainers, not divided up into predictable themes. It’s clear that I’m going to be doing some leveling up before I make much progress.

Naturally, I’m seeing the whole thing in terms of my recent experiences with Final Fantasy V. It’s similar in a way: where FF5 makes you choose which jobs you want to level up, Pokémon makes you choose which individual pokémon to advance. But in FF5, there’s character XP on top of job Ability Points. No matter what jobs you exercise, you’re going to wind up with more powerful characters, with more hit points and magic points. Whereas in Pokémon, when you put your Rhydon into storage and replace it with a Staryu, you just lose all the benefit of the effort you put into leveling the Rhydon.

There are basically two ways to level up a particular pokémon quickly. First, you can put it in front of the stack, so that it comes up first whenever you go into combat. Even if you immediately switch to a different pokémon, this counts as participating in combat and gets it a share of the XP. The problem is that switching away like that loses the initiative. The best way to win combat is always with a single devastating blow right at the beginning; if you can’t do that, the enemy is likely to do a move that raises its defense, or lowers your ability to attack, or paralyzes you, or even just damages you, making you go back to the Poké Center for healing earlier than you otherwise would. So this is approach is best taken when the pokémon you’re trying to level has at least some chance of winning fights on its own.

The other way is to equip the “Experience All” item, which shares a fraction of the XP from a fight with everyone in the party, even if they didn’t participate. The pokémon who participate still get the bulk of the XP, but a low-level pokémon is still going to get more from the cast-off scraps of a battle between champions than from fighting someone his own size.

The real problem, then, is what to do when the other pokémon are only slightly more powerful than you. You can’t earn disproportionate XP by sitting in the back with “Experience All”, and you can’t fight them all by yourself. Mostly what you can do is go out in short sallies and retreat to the Poké Center a lot.

Final Fantasy V: Mastery

I’ve been devoting some effort to trying to “master” various jobs. Every job maxes out at some point: eventually you have access to all of the powers it grants. But that’s not all there is to it. A character who switches back to the “Bare” job — meaning no job at all, the state everyone starts the game in — gets the benefits of all the jobs they’ve mastered. This includes the greatest stat bonuses of any mastered jobs — so you can have the strength of a Knight and the magical power of a Summoner at the same time — and it also includes any passive effects of the job. I’ve turned Krile into a Master Thief; consequently, if I switch her to Bare, she keeps the Thief’s ability to see secret passages. And I kind of want to master the Thief job with all the other characters too, because it has the best Speed bonus.

In short, the one job without any special abilities of its own becomes the most powerful one by the end of the game. I assume that I’ll eventually want to switch everyone to Bare, although this would mean that I wouldn’t get any more job levels, which would deprive the game of its main way of rewarding the player. The “addictive” quality in RPGs in general comes from the way that players look at their character stats and see that they’re really close to advancing to the next level. It makes you say “Just a few more monsters, and then I’ll quit for the night,” often multiple times in succession. The more things you’re simultaneously leveling in, the closer, on average, you’ll be to a new level in the closest one at any given moment. RPGs where you control multiple characters have an obvious advantage here.

Still, there are a couple of classes that I don’t think I want to master. Like the Berserker. Most games in the Final Fantasy series have this status effect called “Berserk” — it’s one of the more interesting things in the series, because it can be either good or bad, depending on context. Berserk characters hit a lot harder than normal characters, but they can’t do anything else. They just take a swing at a randomly-chosen enemy whenever they’re up. So it can be a good thing to have on the party’s tanks, but it effectively disables spellcasters. Now, the Berserker is a job that makes the person doing it berserk all the time. I assume that this carries over to Bare if you master it. So mastering Berserker seems like a liability — you’re effectively declaring “I don’t expect to use this character as anything other than a tank in the endgame”.

The Monk has a similar but lesser problem: the Counter ability, which makes characters automatically counterattack after being hit. Normally, this is a good thing, as launching extra out-of-turn attacks means you kill things faster. It’s the “automatically” that gives me pause. There are situations where hitting an opponent is bad. For example, if you’re using a weapon that does fire damage, hitting a fire-based monster will heal it. As with the Berserker, the Monk deprives you of a certain amount of control: you can’t choose to not counterattack. On the other hand, it’s kind of an anomalous case there, so I don’t think this problem outweighs the Monk’s benefits, such as having the best Strength in the game.

Final Fantasy V: Penultimate Endeavors

I think I understand by now how the rest of the game is going to go. An area is available to me now that I have every reason to believe to be the endgame area — at least, it’s a place that you can’t return from, offering little opportunity to save and no opportunity to buy equipment, all of which is typical of a final dungeon in a Final Fantasy. I’ve visited this area twice. The first time, I was sucked in accidentally when I flew over it in my airship, and didn’t survive long. The second time was curiosity, coupled with lack of progress elsewhere. It lasted longer, but still ended with a TPK courtesy of a miniboss I wasn’t prepared for.

The one really atypical thing about the endgame is how early it becomes available. I’ve still got some major quests to do, including at least two dungeons. But the plot is no longer the driving force. Rather, the point of the remaining quests is simply to gear up for the final battle. The main quest right now is to unlock the game’s ultimate weapons, and other quests involve obtaining the ultimate spells and one final Job. It’s not unusual in the Final Fantasy series to spend some time hunting down upgrades before plunging into the finale, but that stage of the game usually doesn’t have this much content. It’s not clear yet how optional it all is, but given how tough the end boss in FF4 was, I’m not going to make another sally at the endgame until I’ve completed everything else. And since I’ll be getting on a plane to the east coast tomorrow, I probably won’t get a chance before the new year.

There’s something going on here that’s almost unique to RPGs. Call it “soft walls” — places where you don’t go before you’re ready, even though the game doesn’t prevent you. My earliest memorable experience with such a thing was in the 1988 post-apocalypictic RPG Wasteland, which put the Archivist Citadel, one of the highest-level areas, smack in the middle of the map with its doors wide open from the beginning of the game. Every once in a while I would go in there to see if I could handle it yet, only to limp home after fleeing one encounter. The FF5 endgame doesn’t work quite like that: most of the encounters there are things I’m quite capable of handling, but I don’t want to go there simply because I can’t come back.

Final Fantasy V: Third World

FF5 does something cool at the start of the third chapter. To recap: chapter 1 takes place on the planet where the supreme bad guy X-Death was imprisoned thirty years ago, and at its climax X-Death breaks free. Chapter 2 take place on X-Death’s homeworld, where you rush around getting Dawn Warriors killed and failing to stop X-Death’s master plan. But you do eventually face X-Death in battle and defeat him. Not that you expect this to stop him or anything. He’s been killed before, after all.

Immediately after this fight, everything goes dark, and the heroes find themselves lying on the ground near Reina’s castle, which is back on world 1. Except… things are different. The land is connected in ways that it wasn’t before. I didn’t understand what had happened at first, but I still got a sense that there was Something Very Wrong.

What happened is this: the two planets merged. The chapter 3 map is a melding of the chapter 1 and 2 maps, which fit together like a jigsaw when overlaid. An inaccessible mountainous island from world 1 is now in the middle of a bridge from world 2. A region where both worlds had an archipelago now has an uninterrupted land bridge.

It seems that the two worlds were once one, and that reuniting them was essential to unsealing the power of the Void, which X-Death wishes to claim for his own. Why does sealing the void involve splitting a world in two? Because the designers came up with this neat gimmick and needed an excuse to put it in the game.

Final Fantasy V: The Death of Galuf

By now, all four of the original Dawn Warriors are dead. With the exception of Dorgan, who was already dead before the story began 1Unless he’s actually alive, which wouldn’t surprise me at all., they all heroically sacrificed themselves to help me escape X-Death’s clutches, symbolically stepping aside so that the new generation can take over and so forth.

Note that Galuf was one of the Dawn Warriors, and also one of the player characters. Thus we have one of those famous Final Fantasy “cutscene deaths”, where the plot demands that the resurrection magic you’ve been using all game suddenly doesn’t work for some reason, although he version I’m playing cuts through that by designating characters who have run out of hit points as “KO” rather than “dead”.

Galuf’s death leaves a vacancy in the party, which is quickly filled by Galuf’s granddaughter, Krile. I actually knew this was coming; I’ve looked at a few spoilers files by now to help me choose which Jobs to advance in. I’ve been trying to avoid plot spoilers, but a change in the party roster is something that game mechanics spoilers have to cover too. So I was worried about what would happen to all the experience levels and job levels Galuf had accumulated. As it turns out, he somehow manages to transfer them to Krile. So as far as the gameplay goes, it seems less like Galuf is dead and more like he’s been transformed into a little girl. And it’s not a large change, either, aside from the graphics — there’s some difference in their base stats (Galuf is stronger, Krile faster and more magical), but this is completely swamped by the effect of the Jobs on stats.

Speaking of the graphics, Galuf’s death is one of the stranger visual moments in the game. As he gasps out his final words, he starts flashing like a boss monster in combat mode, and when he dies, his body vanishes. “Deresolution”, as they called it in Tron. Now, we know that this is what happens when things die in this game, but it’s always seemed like a simplification of what really happens — much like how we accept the battle animtions, in which the heroes “stand ten feet away and make hitting motions” as Kingdom of Loathing put it, as a symbol for actually hitting the enemies with their weapons. But to take that out of combat mode — are we to understand that this really is a story about a world where dead people actually vanish? It seems like a joke, or like something that an indie developer would put in as some kind of postmodern commentary.

This isn’t the first plot-death in the series, so I may well have seen this happen before and not been struck by it so. Mind you, most of the deaths of major characters in the last Final Fantasy game I played, FF4, turned out by the end to not have really been fatal after all, so maybe there wasn’t any on-screen non-combat-mode deresolution there. On the other hand, perhaps this blog is making me think about what I’m seeing more.

1 Unless he’s actually alive, which wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Final Fantasy V: Separation of story and gameplay mechanics

Final Fantasy is something of a genre unto itself. Moreso, in my opinion, than most game franchises. There’s a significant number of people who play the Final Fantasy games and no other CRPGs. It has its own convetions and vocabulary, things that fans of the series understand from earlier games, making it easier for those in the know but harder for outsiders to get in — something that I’d argue is a big part of genre in any medium.

Often, genre in games is reinforced by things that don’t make sense, but which the player doesn’t question.

Usually it’s a matter of gameplay considerations trumping common sense, as is right and proper. In most first-person shooters, you can take multiple bullets to the chest without so much as slowing down, because the alternative would be a less enjoyable game. You can make in-game excuses for it, declare that the player is wearing power armor or something, but you don’t really need to, because most of the players understand the conventions of the genre.

Or consider healing items, potions and medikits and so forth that instantly remove damage when used. One of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen in a noninteractive cutscene was a moment in the final boss battle of Prince of Persia 3D — not The Sands of Time, but the largely-forgotten one from several years before. In it, the baddie you’re fighting (some kind of anthropomorphic tiger), badly beaten, takes a moment to pull out a vial of orange fluid, uncork it, and gulp it down, restoring him enough to begin the next stage of the fight. It’s not at all unusual in games for players to do this sort of thing, but the presentation here makes it seem like part of the story rather than part of the game, and that draws attention to the absurdity of the idea.

Final Fantasy has healing potions, which can be used in combat. It also has a number of status effects which can be cured with specific items: “Antidote” for poisoned characters, “Soft” for petrified ones, “Cornucopia” for those artificially aged by magical aging effects — not all of the effects are obvious, but since they’re mostly the same from game to game, you learn them. Or, if you have enough mana, you can cure any status effect with the spell Esuna, a nonsense word that doesn’t seem to mean anything in Japanese either, but which players of the series will recognize immediately.

But if you’re really low on mana, you should stay at an inn, which heals the entire party, recovers mana, and removes status ailments all at once. If you’re not near an inn, there are tents and cottages, which are like small, portable inns. (Based on the graphics, “cottage” is probably a mistranslation. It looks like a larger tent.) The animation that results from using a tent or cottage makes it clear that you’re staying in it overnight, although it only takes a few seconds of real time. Unlike potions, you can’t use them during combat — in fact, you can only use it in places where you can save the game, which is to say, anyplace outdoors plus save points in dungeons. But like potions, tents and cottages are single-use items. That’s their first violation of common sense. It reminds me a little of the keys in early Ultimas, which were more like single-use lockpicks.

The second violation is something that I don’t think really came up in FF1, but which I’ve just had a fairly big dose of in FF5. There are portions of this game where it tries to create a sense of urgency in the story that isn’t actually present in gameplay. At one point, for example, you infiltrate the tower that’s projecting the force field around X-Death’s castle. While you climb to the tower’s peak, Zeza the Dawn Warrior goes to the basement to where the bulk of the machinery is housed and waits for you, first reminding you to hurry, because you don’t have much time before X-Death’s forces overwhelm you. You battle your way up through the tower, and just before the top, hey! A save point! Let’s pitch camp.

My point isn’t that this is unrealistic. My point is that it actually took me a day or so to remember this. The mission is part of the plot, and the tent is part of the game, and seldom the twain shall meet.

Final Fantasy V: Dawn Warriors

I’ve made my way back to Galuf’s castle. It turns out he’s a king on this planet. I thought at first that this was another piece of his backstory that I had missed or misinterpreted somehow, and I was relieved to discover that it was news to the rest of the player characters as well. Another flashback filled in more details: the reason that Galuf and his comrades — “The Dawn Warriors”, as their PR department calls them — imprisoned X-Death where they did is simply because that’s where they defeated him, and they had to do something about him right there before he came back to life.

Now, these Dawn Warriors were a group of four, much like the current party. For the first time in the series, there’s a sense that the player’s position is not unique, that the previous generation had their version of this story — a Pre-final Fantasy, if you will (Midterm Fantasy, maybe?) — and that the story is partly about coming of age, filling the shoes of those who came before you and living up to their standards. When you think about it, it’s an appropriate theme for an RPG with mechanics based around improving your characters. FF8 does something similar.

As if to drive the point home, it turns out that one of the Dawn Warriors, the late Dorgan, was the viewpoint character’s father. This gives certain NPCs an opportunity to say admiring things about him and then conclude with “He would have been proud of you” or similar, just like whenever Dumbledore talks about James Potter. In particular, I’ve got this treatment from the two other remaining Dawn Warriors, Kelga and Zeza.

Kelga is a werewolf — werewolves are good guys in this game, there’s a whole town full of them. He’s too ill to have much to do with the new fight against X-Death, and will more than likely die before the game is over. Zeza, on the other hand, leads the offensive against X-Death’s new domain. It’s surrounded by an impenetrable force field, but Zeza knows a secret way in, through a cave that’s only accessible by submarine.

This is the point where I really started to think that everything that seemed new and different about FF7 was already present in FF5. FF7 was the point where the designers seemed to suddenly realize that
Fantasy does not have to imply Pseudo-Medieval. Sure, it still had swords and spells and dragons, but it was also full of guns and helicopters and neon-lit cityscapes. FF8 went so far as to declare that all magic was really manifestations of psi power, and put you in a world with roughly 1940’s fashions and customs (except in one country where it was more like Star Trek fashions and customs.) In FF5, people wear standard fantasy robes and live in standard fantasy castles, but this is but a veneer over advanced industrial technology. There’s always been a bit of high tech in the series — FF1 had a “castle in the sky” that turned out to be a space station populated by robots 1I always thought that the robots in FF1 looked a lot like those in Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, AKA Laputa, which was released in Japan while FF1 was in development., and FF4 involved a trip to the moon — but that stuff has generally been more like an anomaly in a mostly stock-fantasy world, and a relic of Vancian lost civilizations besides. In FF5, people are building submarines and steamships and force-field generators, even though they evidently haven’t discovered gunpowder.

1 I always thought that the robots in FF1 looked a lot like those in Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, AKA Laputa, which was released in Japan while FF1 was in development.

Final Fantasy V: I am an Idiot

It turns out that I actually got explicit instructions about where the Adamantite was, but failed to understand them, and then forgot them. This lack of understanding was made possible by a complete misinterpretation of Galuf’s flashbacks, which I will now correct point by point:

Galuf and his cohorts did not create or place the four crystals. In the flashback, they discussed creating a prison for X-Death using the crystals. But the crystals were already there. The presence of the Crystals is probably why they chose this planet for his prison in the first place. This leads into the next misconception:

Galuf is not hundreds of years old. Since the crystals had been there for as long as anyone could remember, and Galuf put them there, it seemed a reasonable conclusion. But, as noted, Galuf didn’t put them there. By now, I’ve reached another scene where he says that X-Death had been sealed away a mere 30 years ago.

Galuf did not stay on this planet. My idea that he had was based mainly on the fact that he said he came in a meteorite, just like the monsters. To return to his homeworld, he’d surely need some kind of flying machine, and meteorites, it seemed to me, are more like falling machines. Well, it turns out that these are two-way meteorites. He actually returns in one after a certain point.

Galuf’s granddaughter lives on his homeworld. It’s just that the two worlds have extremely similar customs and architecture.

And finally, the one crucial point that separated me from the storyline for the bulk of last session: The game starts with a meteorite crashing into the area near Reina’s castle. That was Galuf’s transport. His initial amnesia was a consequence of his crash-landing, and not, as I had assumed, of his being crash-landed at.

This also means that the destruction of the first crystal was not in any way caused by the first meteor, as I had assumed. Rather, the reverse: Galuf returned because he had seen that the crystals were failing. This means that the “amplifiers” probably are to blame after all, although X-Death certainly helped matters along once he was able.

Now, in order to figure all this out, I looked at a script at GameFAQs. This script is for the SNES version, so it’s not identical to the text in the version I’ve been playing, but looking at it, I see multiple references to Galuf having come 30 years ago, as well as Galuf’s reaction to being told that we need Adamantite: “Remember that meteor I came here in? I think I remember seeing some inside of the meteor!” If there was anything like this in the version I played, I could have saved myself some trouble by remembering more of it. But even in this version, it looks like the player is expected to have figured out a thing or two not explicitly spelled out — like that the “meteor I came here in” is the one where you met Galuf in the first place.

I don’t mind having to figure things out. I play adventure games, right? But to figure things out, you need access to information, including information you’ve seen once and forgotten about. Games are mocked for the unrealistic way that people repeat the same things every time you talk to them, but it’s kind of essential. And it’s often done like that here, especially for useless information: if I want to be reminded about how the wind is failing and ships will be unable to sail, there are any number of villagers willing to repeat what they said back at the beginning. But since this isn’t Planescape: Torment, you’re not given the opportunity to repeat conversations with player characters. If Galuf says “30 years ago”, and you forget that detail, there’s no way to make him repeat it, short of restarting or restoring. And I’m not likely to do that, because I want every monster I kill to count.

So, let me now record the rest of what’s happened since then, lest I forget things and get confused again:

  • Reina’s father was, in fact, under X-Death’s control. He met us at the site of the last crystal, urged us to kill the crystal’s guardian, then broke it.
  • X-Death is now free, and has returned to his (and Galuf’s) homeworld to work his senseless evil.
  • Galuf’s granddaughter, Krile, came after him in another meteorite. She undid the whammy on the King, who then gave his life to save the rest of us
  • Galuf and Krile returned to their world in Krile’s meteorite.
  • Cid put together a teleporter so that the rest of the party could follow, but it only works once. We’ll have to find our own way back.
  • X-Death captured the party and used them to bait Galuf. Galuf rescued them, so everyone’s together again now, but they’re in lost in a remote wilderness.

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