Chrono Trigger: Twists

Yesterday yielded good progress. I’ve got to the point where, like in every Final Fantasy, you acquire a flying machine that allows easy access to the entire map. Unlike the typical Final Fantasy airship, this one is a time machine as well, meaning you don’t have to go trudging back to the rifts any more and can easily scan through the same location in different periods like it’s Time Zone or something. You actually get access to the time travel capabilities before the flight, and when the characters learn it can fly too, they’re surprised. The player is not. It looks like it should fly. I was surprised when it didn’t fly right away.

I’m pleased by the way the plot is turning out at this point, and so I’m going to spoil it heavily. (I’m also going to spoil a few Final Fantasy games for comparison purposes.) Like in the best time-travel stories, everything is folding together. Things that seemed arbitrary turn out to have histories. Characters you meet in one era turn out to be older, time-displaced versions of people you’ve met elsewhere. When an amulet that’s been in your inventory since near the beginning of the game can be charged with the same magical energies as one held by a forgotten monarch in ancient times, it’s not a coincidence: it’s the same amulet.

There are two particular twists that I want to describe. One is something that I was anticipating: Magus, the putative mid-game bad guy, joins the party. This is probably the hardest spoiler to avoid in the entire game. Any article or wiki page that even just lists the playable characters is going to give this one away. Anyway, it got me wondering: are villains who join your party a JRPG thing? FF7 and FF8 both had brief sections where you adventure with the enemy, albeit the FF7 one was in a flashback to before he went bad. It also got me wondering if Chrono Trigger was the one that did it first, but apparently the Fire Emblem series had been doing similar things for five years already. Feel free to correct me on this, though.

Magus can’t really be said to “switch sides”, though, any more than the superheroes in the classical mistake-each-other-for-criminals scenario switch sides when they team up afterward. For all his gothness, he’s really just misunderstood. Mind you, he’s mainly misunderstood by his supporters. In Chrono’s home era, in the unaltered timeline, the monsters of Monster City revere Magus as a hero for almost managing to summon Lavos, the apocalyptic monster responsible for destroying the world in the future. They talk about finishing what he started and sending Lavos to destroy humankind for them. But Magus wasn’t summoning Lavos to use it as a weapon. He was summoning it because he wanted to kill it. He understood what Lavos really is: a planetary parasite that fell to earth eons ago, burying itself underground to consume the planet’s energy from within, then controlling people who sought its stolen power.

Also, it’s the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. But apart from that detail, this story reminds me a lot of Jenova in FF7. Or, to be honest, it reminds me of what I read about Jenova after the fact. When I actually played FF7, I didn’t get a very clear idea of Jenova’s backstory, and when I encountered detailed explanations elsewhere, they left me wondering just where all this information came from, whether there was stuff in the game that I had missed or whether it was all out-of-band. Right now, I’m starting to suspect that other people picked up on the story more easily than me because they had already played Chrono Trigger, which tells it much more clearly. Chrono Trigger lets you witness the backstory firsthand, including the bygone-era parts.

The other twist I want to mention is the big one: the death of the main player character. This actually took me somewhat by surprise. Oh, I knew that someone was going to die. I had seen some mentions here and there of how fans were unprepared for the death of — and then I’d turn away sharply before reading any further. Even if I hadn’t seen such things, the imminent death of an unspecified party member is prophesied within the game itself. But I was really expecting it to be Marle.

Why Marle? Largely because Lavos had got me noticing similarities with FF7, and Marle seemed similar in various ways to Aerith, FF7‘s party member who dies. Marle and Aerith are both healers, they both have a significant family background that they’re keeping secret (Marle’s a princess, Aerith is the last living descendant of the Ancients), and they’re both strangers who attach themselves to the party after meeting and flirting with the protagonist while he’s alone (and sprawled on the ground). On top of that, rescuing Marle when she’s in danger is the initial goal that sets the whole story into motion, so it seemed like her death would be the one of greatest dramatic significance. Well, except that of the protagonist, I suppose, but how likely is that?

Losing Crono is an explicitly temporary thing: no sooner is he gone than the other playable characters start trying to figure out how to resurrect him. But in the meantime, you have a sudden shift in the nature of the game. Up to this point, Crono had been a constant presence, the one character who was always available for use while others shift in and out. You come to rely on his abilities, like how he has really useful combo moves with everyone. With Crono and Marle together, I had a cheap and oft-used way to give light healing to the entire party. I kept looking for that in Marle’s combo menu for a while when it wasn’t there any more. Magus essentially replaces him in the party roster, but doesn’t get any two-person combos at all, which says a lot about their differences in character.

Final Fantasy VI: At Long Last

Of all the Final Fantasies I’ve played — and I’ve played exactly half of the main-line titles by now — FF6 is the one that took me the longest to beat. Not because it’s a longer or tougher game than the others, but because I kept stopping. I guess this is a pretty good indicator that I didn’t find it as compelling as FF5 or FF7. The story and setting are interesting enough, but most of the time, my attention was on the mere mechanics, which just didn’t keep me interested the way FF5‘s freewheeling Jobs system did. I can blame my urge to optimize for part of that: the dual use of Espers, teaching spells continuously and raising stats when you level, meant that I spent a lot of time shuffling them around from person to person.

Ah, but I leave out the Espers’ third use, that of summonable. That’s because I was hardly ever using them that way toward the end, as my characters came to dwarf them in power. Maybe half of them knew the Ultima spell (the ultimate area-effect direct-damage spell), and most of them knew Cure 3 (enough healing power to usually restore the whole party to full health) and Life 2 (resurrect and restore to full health). These are all big mana-drains, but they also knew Osmose (absorb mana from an enemy) — something that I never used much for most of the game, but which proved useful in the three-stage boss fight against Kefka.

There’s a certain amount of philosophizing before and after the fight, with Kefka taking a garden-variety nihilistic stance, countered by Terra’s nurturing the-journey-not-the-destinationism. With his makeup and hyena’s laugh, Kefka always seemed a bit like the Joker, but when he goes into ultimate-battle mode, he adopts a more mock-angelic form that’s a clear anticipation of Sephiroth in FF7. I suppose that to people who played the games in order, it came off as Sephiroth being a variation on Kefka’s theme, but from my point of view, Kefka looks like a transitional form, a step on the way to the more familiar.

At any rate, as I had been told, the end boss fight turns out to be pretty easy once you’ve come that far and survived the other encounters in Kefka’s junkyard tower. The main obstacle to completing the dungeon is simply its length. I may be just remembering badly, but I don’t recall the final dungeon in FF7 taking anywhere near so long to traverse. And, once you’re through with it, you get the cutscenes. Just like in FF5 (or, at least, the Playstation remake of FF5 that I played), this game just doesn’t want to end. It wants to keep showing you stuff for as long as you’re willing to look at it.

Notably, there’s a series of in-engine vignettes showing the crew rushing to escape the tower before it collapses: each character (or set of related characters) gets their own little mini-sketch highlighting their role in the story — yes, even Gogo and the yeti, who aren’t really part of the story, and who shouldn’t even need to escape the tower, because I left them cooling their heels on the airship. Each of these vignettes is preceded by a credits-like listing, showing their name twice, in small letters in the form it’s usually given and then its full form in larger letters: “Edgar as EDGAR RONI FIGARO”, for example, or “Gogo as GOGO”. It took me a while to realize that the first form was probably the player-assigned name, and that it only looked weird because I hadn’t renamed anyone. Once again, I find myself wondering if I’m strange for doing that, if most people reassign them. Certainly whoever designed that sequence assumed that they do.

Once out of the tower, the real credits for the game are punctuated by scenes of the world, freed from Kefka’s random destruction, being restored: the grass comes in green again, a child is born, a seedling sprouts where some children planted it, some villagers manage to finish repairing a building without it getting wrecked again. These are all things that were set up as you roamed about talking to NPCs earlier in the game, and it feels very good to have things tied together like that, to make it clear that your actions have made a difference — but also that your actions aren’t solely responsible for the recovery. This is a matter of people all over the world working to heal it, not a burst of magical Disney energy restoring everything. In fact, that’s kind of important to the themes here. In the end, defeating Kefka involved destroying magic.

Now, lots of fantasy stories, from The Lord of the Rings to Spellbreaker, culminate in the end of the magical age and a transition into something more like the real world. I suppose it’s a metaphor for growing up. But usually it’s portrayed as a loss. Here in FF6, magic is unquestionably a bad thing, and the world is better off without it. There are mentions of the Mage Wars that almost ended the world a thousand years ago, and the Empire’s attempts to resurrect it result in a cataclysm of similar proportions. The only thing that makes the heroes hesitate to get rid of it all is half-Esper Terra, whose fate once the Espers are gone is uncertain. She survives, but only by giving up her magical half — just like the world itself. It suddenly strikes me that this is the reason for her name.

At any rate, that’s one more Final Fantasy off the Stack. Two more were released while I was playing it. The game is very completist-friendly, providing the winner with big lists of all the spells, lores, blitzes, rages, and dances the various characters did and didn’t get. The only place where I was at all complete was Cyan’s sword techniques, and that only because completing a certain quest unlocks all the ones you haven’t got yet in a single lump. I did manage to find and kill all eight of the Great Dragons, and received for my trouble an Esper that I hardly used. Contrary to expectation, it wasn’t Bahamut, either; I never did find Bahamut, although the lists tell me he was around somewhere. The one place where I failed completism most completely was the Arena, where you can wager items on noninteractive duels (one of your guys vs a monster of some sort) in order to win better items. I had used the Arena minimally, due to a misunderstanding on my part. I had found that most of the time I wound up in combat with a freaky-looking facecloud called Chupon who seemed completely undefeatable, because he would always use his Sneeze attack to simply expel my guy from the ring. “I should hold off on arena fights until I know how to block a sneeze!” I thought. “I don’t want to wager a valuable item and have Chupon just take it away from me.” Well, it turns out that the opponent you get is determined by the item you wager, and Chupon is the player’s punishment for wagering too low. So I missed out on some stuff there, but obviously nothing I needed to win the game.

Since I’ve already played FF7 and FF8, the next game in the series I play will be FF9. We’re getting pretty close to the end of Final Fantasy on the Stack, provided I don’t buy any more or take another two years to play each of the remaining games. But I’ll probably want to finish Chrono Trigger and Recettear before starting any new JRPGs.

Final Fantasy VI: Pixel Art

Final Fantasy VI really is the pinnacle of its form, but that shouldn’t be surprising, considering that it’s also the last of its form. The next game in the series shifted to blobby low-polygon-count 3D, and, while that style has its charm, it required different techniques than the rest of the series up to that point. There’s a real craft to storytelling via tiny pixelated sprites, and it was pretty well-developed by now. The human figures have a large library of emote animations for use in dialogues and cutscenes, some of them quite expressive despite differing from the neutral expression by only a few pixels — although others involve running back and forth or leaping in the air several times the character’s height. Everything I said about the theatrical gestures in Police Quest 4 applies even moreso here.

Cutscenes are the obvious place to show off sprite animations, but there’s even more impressive work in the combat. The most noticeable part of this is in the special moves, such as when Cyan swoops into the midst of the enemies, with a comet-trail of desaturated afterimages behind him. The movement there doesn’t doesn’t look at all natural, but then, neither do fireworks. Personally, though, I’m more impressed with the subtler touches, like the alteration in posture to indicate each character’s state. Someone who’s been ordered to cast a spell, for example, will bow their head and make muttering motions until it’s their turn to act. This actually provides useful feedback about what’s going on, whereas the flashier attack animations are just a matter of showing off. The one disappointing thing is that the monsters aren’t animated in combat at all. Certain monsters — mainly bosses — have a fully-animated sprite representation that’s used in the main movement-and-exploration mode, but during combat, all monsters use larger portraits that just stand still. Presumably it would have been prohibitively space-consuming to include animations for every monster type in the game within the constraints of the SNES — even using still images, most of the monsters are palette swaps of other monsters. I suppose the shift to 3D in the next game helped there: suddenly animations were relatively lightweight, consisting of differences in vectors instead of a full copy of the bitmap for every frame.

Today’s indie game developers are in love with minimalistic pixel art, partly because it’s the aesthetic of least effort. But that’s certainly not the case here: the artists put in loads of effort and want you to know it. To the extent that it goes all “less is more”, it’s a product of systemic constraints. Considered purely in terms of style, the closest recent game is probably Braid, which similarly tries to be as evocative as it can with a super-deformed sprite with a limited number of cels. But even Braid was deliberately retro, and there was nothing retro about FF6 at the time of its release.

On the other hand, the game’s biggest reach beyond sprites is something I regard as its biggest failure: the character portraits. In my posts about FF5, I described the concept art created by Yoshitaka Amano, and how little it resembled the stuff in the game. FF6 puts a closer approximation to the concept art in the party stats screens, fitting in greater detail by showing just the head. There’s just something off about these portraits. Some of the faces are just ugly in a way that their sprites are not: Gau looks misshapen, Setzer has scars that you can’t normally see. But even the pretty ones look very wrong to me. I don’t think this is the famous “uncanny valley” effect — even the portraits are too far from human for that. It’s more like Scott McCloud’s famous observation that it’s easier to identify with simplified and cartoony characters than with highly-detailed ones. So anyway, here’s a case where I think it would have been better for the art to be more minimalist than it is, and therefore for the artists to choose minimalism rather than do as much as allowed by the medium (and the budget, and the deadlines).

I’m kind of wondering now what FF7 would have been like if the series had stayed 2D. Would it be a better or a worse game? It was astounding at the time, but today, I tend to think that the primitive 3D of the day has weathered worse than well-crafted 2D of the same era. A remake of FF7 in the style of FF6 seems like such an obvious fan project that I’d be a little surprised if it doesn’t turn out that someone is already working on one. But a quick google only yields rumors and arguments about Square going the other direction, doing a HD remake for the PS3. I guess we all at least agree that FF7 in its current form falls short of ideal.

Final Fantasy VI: Espers

Although the worlds in the Final Fantasy series have a lot of elements in common, those elements differ from game to game in their significance to the plot. Take the spells Meteor and Holy. Usually these are just direct-damage spells that the heroes can learn over the course of the game: Meteor is one of the strongest Black spells and Holy is one of the few White spells that kills things. But in FF7, Meteor is a potential extinction-level event and Holy is the only hope for stopping it. This forms the basis of the chief conflict for most of the game. The spells are turned into pure plot events, not part of the game mechanics at all: each is cast only once, in a noninteractive scene.

Similarly, while the bulk of the roster of summonable creatures is repeated from game to game, a particular summonable can be a significant character with its own backstory and cutscenes in one game, and a mere fireball substitute in the next. FF6 takes the former approach a step farther than the other games, though. I’ve mentioned before that one of the basic Final Fantasy plot devices consists of escalating the situation at the end of act 1 by bringing in a new enemy, a threat that dwarfs the previous conflict. The first enemy, for all its power, is ultimately human. The second is the genie that the first lets out of the bottle. The Shinra Corporation gives way to Sephiroth and Jenova, the empire of Galbadia to Ultimecia waiting at the end of time for everything to join her, the empire of Baron to Zemus in his lunar tomb. In FF6, the human enemy is once again an Empire. 1The Empire doesn’t seem to have a name other than “The Empire” in the version I’m playing. Apparently the GBA port calls it the “Gestahlian Empire”, after its leader, Emperor Gestahl. And the inhuman enemy, the alien threat from without? It’s the summonables. The Espers.

Or so it seems briefly, anyway. The plot is a mass of switchbacks, the player’s sympathy thrown this way and that. First the Empire is the bad guys, secretly keeping a number of Espers captive to drain them of magical power to fuel their Magitek, and ultimately killing them to turn them into “Magicite”. When the remaining free Espers find out, they go on a rampage, destroying most of the Empire as well as countless innocent bystanders. The contrite emperor declares that his war of conquest is over and pleads the heroes for help in making peace with the Espers — Terra, the party’s main mage, is uniquely suited for this, being half-Esper. Then, once you find the Espers and arrange a meeting, it turns out to all be a trick to lure the Espers into the open so Kefka can kill them en masse and sieze the resulting Magicite. Emperor Gestahl shows up personally to declare that this was his plan all along, and that Terra was released from the Empire deliberately in the hope that she’d make contact with the hidden Espers. That turns out to be Kefka magically altering his appearance to taunt you, but then it turns out that he actually is acting on the Emperor’s orders anyway. Somewhere in there, one of the playable characters, a renegade Imperial general named Celes, is accused of being an infiltrator in your party, still secretly loyal to the Empire. I didn’t pay any attention to this calumny at first, but what with all the other betrayals, I’m starting to wonder.

Now, Magicite is the source of magic in this game. Each individual Magicite crystal not only gives its wielder the ability to summon the Esper it came from, it also, over time, teaches you spells. It is in fact the only source of normal spells in the game. Thus, although in theory the death of an Esper is supposed to be a bad thing, you basically wind up hoping it’ll happen more. In that way, it’s kind of like FF5, where the shards of the crystals you were supposed to be protecting yielded new Jobs. The Magicite fragments even look a lot like FF5‘s crystals.

In fact, there’s a lot about the whole situation that reminds me of other games in the series. As in FF5, things become summonable by dying, and it’s even more explicit this time. Like FF4, the summonables have a hidden underground home where they live their lives far from the prying eyes of humans. I mentioned in a previous post how the discovery of an Esper buried in a mine reminded me of FF7‘s Jenova, and that’s an impression greatly strengthened now that I know that the Empire was using captive Espers in secret experiments to create magic-capable soldiers. Equipping a crystal in order to gain spells is a little reminiscent of FF7‘s Materia, but the way I keep shuffling them around between characters, not for the sake of the summon ability but for the ancillary benefits, mainly reminds me of FF8‘s Junction system.

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1. The Empire doesn’t seem to have a name other than “The Empire” in the version I’m playing. Apparently the GBA port calls it the “Gestahlian Empire”, after its leader, Emperor Gestahl.

Final Fantasy VI: Bridging the Gap

Usually, when I play a series of games, I play them in order of release, even if that means suffering through the crummy ones before I get to the ones everyone raves about. Final Fantasy has been an exception, and that provides me a rare opportunity to observe the earlier ones with full knowledge of where things were heading. FF6 is a bridging element in my experience of the series: I’ve already played FF5 and FF7. And it’s interesting to me to see the ways it fits a niche halfway between those two games.

As I’ve commented before, the setting of FF5 seemed to be a medieval veneer over advanced industrial technology. The designers wanted to use submarines and force fields and interplanetary travel, but they still wanted to present it as basically a standard pre-industrial fantasy gameworld with castles and dragons and so forth, so the high tech came off as somewhat incongruous and anachronistic. In FF7, this was reversed: the swords-and-sorcery stuff was the anachronism in a setting that’s basically modern and even futuristic in places. Now, FF6 still has castles and kings, but the idea of technology substituting for magic is central to the premise, so they can’t try to sweep it all under the rug without comment the way FF5 did. On the contrary: whenever there’s technology around, which there frequently is, the characters essentially keep saying “Look! Technology!” One of those kings is a playable character, and also a gadgeteer who’s fitted out his castle with all the latest things, including engines for burrowing into the sand and traveling underground.

The character system also has aspects of both FF5 and FF7. Like the former, you have job skills: only the thief can steal things in combat, only the gadgeteer I just mentioned can use clockpunk contraptions, etc. Like the latter, character class is inextricably bound to individual characters, and each “class” has exactly one character in it. Class doesn’t really mean all that much in FF7, though, since the function of job skills — the main thing the whole Job system was used for — is taken over by Materia. The characters differ only in their base stats, what kinds of equipment they can use, and their “limit breaks”, the special attacks that you only get to use after taking a lot of damage. FF6 seems to have a proto-limit break system. At least, the manual claims that characters can make more powerful attacks when they’re low on health. I haven’t observed this myself, because it’s hard to keep a character low on health long enough for them to make an attack: any enemy group capable of reducing someone to that state is probably also capable of finishing them off unless you provide massive healing at the earliest opportunity. I suppose this is why the designers altered the rules when they made FF7. (“Has taken a lot of damage” is not the same as “is currently low on health”, and is a much easier state to achieve.)

I can’t say much about the plot at this early stage, but so far it’s revolved around an “Esper”, a being of great magic, discovered embedded in a crystal in a mine. The empire wants it, and the player characters don’t want them to have it. After a while, it essentially hatches from its mineral shell and somehow merges with the party’s magic specialist, Terra, who transforms into something other than human and flies away. This could be seen as FF5‘s defend-the-crystals plot combined with the FF7‘s business about Jenova, a powerful alien being discovered underground, whose living cells were injected into humans in a super-soldier project. Or is that too much of a stretch?

Final Fantasy VI: Playing Defense

Twice now, I’ve encountered a special sort of mini-game in Final Fantasy VI, one where you have to defend a position by moving troops around on a network of tunnels, taking care to keep all possible routes blocked. FF7 had something similar to this, in an optional bit where you could get some special Materia by defending an egg on a mountaintop, but that was more of a pure minigame, with mechanics completely separate from the main game. Whereas in the FF6 version, each confrontation is fought out in the regular combat engine, using the same characters that you’ve been using all along.

Mind you, the first time around, I hadn’t yet accumulated the palette of playable characters I have now, so only one of the three groups I controlled had established characters in it. The rest were filled out with moogles. The second time, I have seven characters and have to divide them into three groups, which makes for a nice bit of tough decision-making. I want each group to be capable of wiping out an attacker in one or two rounds; this requires characters with special skills that let them attack multiple enemies at once, and I only have so many of them. Ideally, I also want a healer in every group, but I only have two mages.

Gau the wild-boy may be the key to that. His special ability is the ability to mimic the attacks of monsters he’s watched you fight. In other words, he’s kind of like the Blue Mage in FF5, but with some key differences, such as that you can only tell Gau what creature to imitate, not which of that creature’s attacks to use. (I understand there’s another Blue Mage-like character to come, and I will probably go into more detail when I encounter him.) At any rate, one time I found a creature that lets Gau cast a resurrection spell. It didn’t do much good, because no one in my party was dead at the time, but it gives me the hope that I might be able to find a creature that lets Gau cast healing spells. He knows a lot of creatures, though, and it’ll take some time to try them all out, so I’ll probably get through the current defense mission before discovering it. I’ll just have to rely on potions.

I think I basically prefer the FF6 version of the defense game to the FF7 one, because of the way it’s integrated into the game, but there’s one thing I find annoying about it: it’s constantly interrupting me. The whole thing is realtime, you see. If I decide that I want to move one of my groups to a particular spot, the enemy keeps advancing while I do it. If they engage a group other than the one I’m currently controlling, I immediately have to fight the new group. By the time that’s done, I’ve lost track of what I was trying to do on the main map; by the time I’ve got it figured out again, I’m plunged into another fight. Maybe it would be better if the main map were turn-based, but that would be contrary to the nature of the game as a whole, with its “active battle” system. I think what I really want is for it to be mouse-based, or in some other manner to allow me to tell a unit to go to a particular destination, rather than having to control it every step of the way with the D-pad. In other words, an RTS interface, because an RTS is essentially what it is.

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.

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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: Blue Mage

I had a couple of breakthroughs last night. For one thing, I have the airship that I knew I’d find eventually. More importantly, I also now have a character who’s sufficiently advanced in the Trainer job that it completely transforms how I can use the Blue Mage.

The Blue Mage is a class introduced in FF5, an addition to the Black/White/Red Mages from the original. Its role in the game is to provide an additional form of collectible. You may have visited all the dungeons, taken all the treasure, and killed one of every type of monster in the game, but how many ways have you been hurt? Nothing kept track until now. You see, blue magic consists of monsters’ special attacks. In order to learn blue spells, the character doing the Blue Mage job has to observe the attack up close. Really up close.

For most of the game, I’ve been keeping the Blue Masochist’s “Learning” skill on two characters, just to increase the odds that one of them gets the opportunity to study these attacks when they happen. Some of the attacks are only used rarely, and those are the ones you really want — partly just because they’re rare, but also because they tend to be the more powerful ones. There’s a devastating attack called “Aqua Rake” — it does massive water-based damage to all enemies. I’ve only had it used against me once, but because I was Learning at the time, I can do it too now.

The Trainer, now: that has a few different skills. One of the things a Trainer can do is attempt to capture a weakened foe, then later set it loose during battle, damaging anything in its way. It’s strikingly similar to the mechanics of Pokémon — the captured monster even takes the form of a little ball — even though FF5 predates Pokémon by several years. But that’s not the important thing. The real purpose of the Trainer is to control monsters. During combat, a sufficiently advanced Trainer can attempt to take control of one monster at a time, and once you’ve got it, you can use any of its attacks against the other monsters.

Or against your Blue Mage.

Suddenly, the hunt for hurt, dependent on luck up to this point, is streamlined and efficient! I’ve got one character devoted to the process now: he’s staying in the Blue Mage job, which gives him innate ability to both learn and cast blue magic, and has the Trainer’s “Control” command equipped. Once I’m satisfied that he’s inflicted everything on himself that an area has to offer, I have the option of switching him to a different job. Or not: Aqua Rake alone makes it worthwhile to keep him blue most of the time.

I understand FF7 had something similar to the Blue Mage, an “Enemy Attack” materia or somesuch, but I don’t remember using it much, if at all. I’ll have to give it a better try when I replay that game — and I’m realizing I’ll have to do that at some point, to see it afresh in the context of the earlier games.

Final Fantasy V: Jobs

Although I’ve been trying to play the Final Fantasy series in order, I skipped FF3. It’s never been released on any platform I own — heck, until recently, it hadn’t even been released in English. 1There was an American release of a game called Final Fantasy III, but it was actually what we today call Final Fantasy VI. Some of the games were originally released only in Japan, but after FF7 they decided to sync up the numbers and do official English-language remakes of the skipped episodes. I tried playing a fan-made translation of FF3 on a NES emulator years ago, but found it unwieldy and confusing, and gave it up, hoping that the future would bring a better way to play it. In particular, it had this “Job” concept that was inadequately explained. Perhaps it was covered better in the docs, which I didn’t have.

FF4 didn’t have anything like the Job system — instead, it accomplished the same purpose, providing variability in gameplay, by swapping different player characters in and out a lot. But FF5 brought Jobs back.

This time I have documentation and an in-game tutorial to help me, but it was still confusing at first, because the whole idea is so contrary to both RPG convention and common sense. In essense: you can change a character’s class at any time (except during combat). I’m not talking about D&D-style multiclassing, I mean you can just turn your level 10 Thief into a level 10 White Mage, cast healing spells on your party, then turn him back to a Thief. It’s a little misleading to even talk about a “level 10 Thief” at all: it’s just a level 10 character who’s currently doing the Thief job.

“Surely there must be some kind of penalty for switching jobs willy-nilly!” one cries. No, there is not. Why should there be? Does D&D reward spellcasters for memorizing the same set of spells every day, or fighters for remaining loyal to a single suit of armor? Jobs in this game are like garments that you slip on to suit your current activities. Indeed, each job comes with its own outfit — or rather, four outfits, one for each player character. They get sillier as the game goes on. One job involves dressing up in an animal costume with big ears.

Each character also gets to use one feature they’ve earned from a different job. This is where it gets complicated. See, there are two parallel kinds of XP. You’ve got your conventional experience level system, which governs the character’s base stats (which are modified by the current job), and you’ve also got “ability points”, which are job-specific. Suppose, for example, you want a character who can both use a sword and cast healing spells. One way to go about this is to give someone the job of White Mage and go kill stuff for a while. A White Mage with enough Ability Points gets the privilege of keeping the ability to cast first-level White spells when switched to a different job. Get some more Ability Points and you can keep the ability to cast second-level White spells, and so on. Likewise, you can do it the other way around: if you gain enough Ability Points as a Knight, you can switch to White Mage and keep the ability to use a sword. (There are other jobs that use swords, but only the Knight lets you keep it.) Each playable character can only have one skill of this sort active at a time, but like the jobs themselves, you can switch the active skill at will.

The whole scheme seems tailor-made for people who like experimenting with different character classes. There are only four playable characters, but there are 22 jobs, including exotic things like Geomancer and Chemist. Naturally I want to try them all. The game doesn’t make all of the jobs available at the beginning, but releases them in batches after certain major plot events, with the more experimental ones appearing later.

Later installments in the series kept the idea of on-the-fly character customization, but the two that I’ve played used different mechanisms for it. In FF7, it was part of the Materia system, which broke things down into more elementary units — instead of a Thief job with such features as enhanced speed and the ability to steal, “Speed Plus” and “Steal” are separate materia that can be used together or independently. In FF8, there’s a system of “Guardian Forces” that enhance their bearers in various ways, including providing the ability to enhance certain stats by attaching spells to them. The FF7 system is a lot simpler than the Job system, the FF8 system a lot more complicated. But all three of them have one thing in common: “action points”, the parallel XP. When I played FF7, it seemed odd that materia — magic stones slotted into weapons or armor — gained experience levels along with their users. But now I see where that comes from.

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1. There was an American release of a game called Final Fantasy III, but it was actually what we today call Final Fantasy VI. Some of the games were originally released only in Japan, but after FF7 they decided to sync up the numbers and do official English-language remakes of the skipped episodes.

Pokémon: Penny Arcade musings

Coincidentally, the ever-popular Penny Arcade has been doing a whole lot of Pokémon-related strips lately. I note in particular that the latest strip makes a joke about a player trading pokemon with himself. This is something that reads differently if you’re familiar with the game. As I’ve pointed out, there are legitimate reasons in the game to prefer a traded to an untraded pokémon, and there are probably people who really do buy two gameboys and two Pokémon cartridges in order to take advantage of this. To one who doesn’t know the game, trading with yourself seems pointless. To one who is, it just seems sad.

They’re presumably into it because of the recent release of the “Diamond” and “Pearl” editions for the Nintendo DS. From what they say, it’s clear that the complexity has been kicked up several notches from the original: they talk about things like breeding pokémon. In the version I know, pokémon are just generated spontaneously from grassy areas by the friction generated when you walk through them. There’s a variety that comes in what are identified male and female forms, but there’s no real reason to believe that they do anything about it. But apparently nowadays breeding your own pokémon is an essential way to get specimens with certain special properties. I remember a sub-game like this in Final Fantasy VII, breeding chocobos in order to get ones that can win races more easily, but also to get special ones that can fly over mountains and oceans. But that was a minor aside in a larger game, whereas Pokémon is all about acquiring special creatures, so it sounds like this is a core part of the game mechanic now. The whole idea seems daunting, but it’s probably more intellectually involving than the level grind.

It also raises the interesting possibility that chocobos might be a lost tribe of pokémon. Must investigate further.