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: Yeti Attacks!

I’ve finally reassembled the whole team. Actually, I’ve done more than that: I’ve picked up a couple of extras. In fact, I have more characters now than are mentioned in the manual. Mog the dancing moogle, who showed up only briefly in the first half, is briefly described there, to document the basics of his dancing abilities (which hardly need documentation, really — it’s not as if they made a DDR-like minigame or anything out of it, intriguing though it would be to try to combine such a thing with ATB combat). His yeti friend is another matter. The presence of a yeti doesn’t come as a complete surprise, because I recall hearing the miners of Narshe talk about it back at the very beginning of the game, and I remember wasting some time hunting for it. But that it joins my party? That was unexpected.

I suppose the reason it’s not mentioned in the docs is that, unlike Mog, there’s no special interface associated with it. In fact, the distinguishing feature of the yeti is absence of interface. You can’t give the yeti equipment, or teach it spells, or even give it orders during combat: it is, in effect, always berzerk and naked. It’s like the Barbarian class from previous games taken to its logical extreme. This makes it the simplest of all the characters to play, and therefore the least interesting. I doubt I’ll be using it much, unless I have an urgent need for more melee power, which it’s got in spades.

But I really don’t think that’s going to happen. Maybe it would have been useful to have a yeti around when I made my assault on the treasure cave where I picked up Locke, but I tackled that cave and the yeti’s lair in the wrong order. Once you have an airship, the game doesn’t much try to force you to do things in a particular order, but there’s definitely an optimal sequence. There are soft walls, and, because of a misunderstanding on my part, I forced my way through some of them prematurely. The result was a nice bit of power-leveling, but now that I go back to the places where I should have gone first, I’m finding them tediously easy. But that’s a risk in any CRPG with an open environment — I remember having a similar experience in Planescape: Torment, for example. Anyway, I think I’m past the point where mere brute muscle is an asset. Everything I meet is either much less powerful than my party, in which case I don’t need the yeti, or a boss, and best handled with judicious use of spells or special powers that the yeti doesn’t have.

And ultimately, this isn’t a yeti’s world. It’s far too genteel. I’ve seen the game described as steampunk, but that’s not quite right: it’s a century or two early for that, fantasy-classical or even fantasy-baroque, with major set-pieces built around things like an opera house and a private art collection. Even after the apocalypse, the men tend to wear long dress coats and tie their hair back with ribbons. A hairy, slope-browed man-beast is somewhat out-of-place, lumbering through the elegant and tastefully-appointed mansions here. But then, of all the playable characters, the only one who’s fully at home in this environment is Edgar. Everyone else is a misfit or outcast of some kind, and several of them have animalistic qualities: a feral child, a girl who transforms into a beast, a moogle. Once again, the yeti is just an exaggeration of something that was already present.

Final Fantasy VI: Character Reassessment

One nice thing about the companion-hunt in the FF6‘s second half: you find people in a different order than the first time around. This forces you to spend some quality time with the ones you acquired late and never really saw the point of. So I’m rethinking some of what I said before.

I said before that the time needed to charge up Cyan’s special “sword technique” attacks made them less than worthwhile in the time-sensitive ATB system. This might have been the case earlier in the game, when attacks were resolved relatively quickly. But the more powerful attacks — both yours and the monsters’ — tend to have longer and more elaborate animations associated with them. The extreme end of this is of course the summon animations, but simple high-level spells take multiple seconds to execute, and when there are a lot of them flying around, you can wind up with your entire party queued up, waiting to carry out the orders you’ve already given them. This is the time to start Cyan charging up a special attack. This isn’t always practical, but that’s a good thing. It gives you a reason to not just automatically use the special attack all the time.

With Setzer, I complained about the slot-machine-like interface for his special moves: it asks you to stop three wheels with precise timing to get three matching symbols. I didn’t use it much before, because I found myself incapable of timing it right. But now, I’m certain that it didn’t really matter. I heard tell of some other game with an interface of this sort that only pretended to rely on the player’s timing: the outcome was really predetermined. And now that I’m aware that this sort of thing goes on, I’ve been paying closer attention to Setzer, and I’m quite certain that he’s cheating as well. I’m putting absolutley no effort into getting the timing right, and I’m still getting matches far more often than you’d expect from chance — in fact, if the first wheel stops at a picture of a gemstone, I always get three gemstones. No exceptions. I hadn’t noticed this in my earlier sorties, but Setzer is significantly higher level now, so perhaps he’s just better at it. It all makes me wonder how prevalent this kind of fakery is. Are there any games that use this kind of interface and don’t cheat the player determination? What’s the psychological effect on all the Japanese children growing up immersed in this? Are they developing an unjustified sense of confidence in their abilities? I suppose that’s part of the RPG experience anyway — the sense of personal improvement that’s really just a matter of the computer gradually making things easier for you. But at least it’s more honest about it most of the time. At any rate, now that I know that Setzer’s special attacks aren’t really dependent on my reflexes, I’m much more willing to use them. It means he’s the game’s specialist in powerful but randomized and unreliable effects, like FF5‘s Geomancer. I kind of liked the Geomancer.

Little Relm’s special power is that she can “sketch” monsters to use their own attacks, randomly-selected, against them. In most cases, this isn’t a very useful ability: the monsters are so much weaker than the party, and often immune to the same kind of elemental damage that they use against you. But I’ve come to realize that she’s got an even better power: her wardrobe. She can wear tiny but powerful outfits that no one else can. (Although I’ve discovered that her grandfather Strago can fit into the moogle suit too, which is a little creepy.) Okay, so that’s not unique to Relm. There are a bunch of character-specific items — mostly weapons — and most equipment can be used by only a few characters. But Relm starts off with an item that’s very powerful, and which only she can use: the “Safty Ring” [sic] left to her by her mother. I don’t think I fully appreciated this before, because it has no effect on her stats and the in-game description is ambiguous. What is does is, it gives her a near-total immunity to direct-damage spells. That is a very big deal. In the second half, there’s a tower populated entirely by spellcasting Kefka-worshippers (and one dragon). I’ve made several attempts at ascending it, and still haven’t reached the top. But I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have without that ring.

Well, except that an item identical to the ring but useable by anyone can be found in the tower’s lower reaches. I really should have figured this out back when it made more of a difference.

Final Fantasy VI: Swapping Out

My merry band has picked up three more: Relm (tyke with magic paintbrush), Cyan (dour samurai), and Gau (wild boy), in that order. This means I’m once again over the limit on how many can be in the party at a time, and have to choose who to take with me. Obviously the last one to join up always gets a spot, just because I want to try them out and see if I want to keep them around more permanently — my memories of everyone’s relative usefulness are not necessarily reliable, and new abilities come with higher levels or better equipment I’m picking up. (For the wretched inhabitants of a destroyed world, the weapons and armor dealers have really managed to advance the state of the art. But I suppose this could be the result of necessity, as the world turns harsher and the monsters tougher. Or it could be a result of magic returning to the world, or of buried artifacts unearthed by the cataclysm. Or, y’know, it could be a RPG.)

To some slight extent, I’m choosing characters for story purposes. Cyan has been writing letters to a woman in one town, so I take him to meet her. Gau’s father is around — I don’t really remember meeting him before, but I must have, or else a lot of the dialogue in this section doesn’t make sense. Anyway, there’s a fairly involved cutscene about reuniting father and son, and its unsatisfactory consequences. I haven’t been to visit the moogle warren yet, but when I do, I’ll have to be sure to bring Relm so she can show off her newly-looted moogle suit. Celes is a constant fixture in my party (and consequently leveling up faster than anyone else) simply because she was the only playable character at the beginning of this half of the game, and therefore it feels like it’s her story. It was her idea to put the old gang back together, so she should be on hand to recruit each member personally.

Notably, even though the choice of characters is the closest thing this game has to FF5‘s Job system, I’m not choosing characters on the basis of their utility in the immediate context, like picking the ones with the skills to overcome the monsters or other obstacles in a particular area. What’s more, I didn’t even really do this back in the first half. I remember putting together some special teams to accompany Gau into the Veldt, but that was a matter of choosing the characters that benefit the most from the context, and that’s not quite the same thing. I mainly remember swapping people out as a way to level everyone up evenly, and to make sure everyone learned all the spells. And I may settle into that pattern again, once I’ve got everyone back. It’s certainly the way to go if you want to experience the game completely, to try out all the special powers and so forth, and it’s kind of necessary because you never know when the game is going to force a character on you. Characters that rejoin your party after an absence seem to get artificially leveled up to match the ones you’ve been leveling up yourself, but ones that you’ve simply kept waiting in the wings get no such handicap. But also, the first half frustrated the natural tendency to identify a core team: the sole initial character there was Terra, and she was simply pulled out of the party early on. Imagine losing Cloud Strife that way, or Heimdall, or Pikachu. It made it clear that this is not simply a hero’s journey, but an ensemble piece. Perhaps I’ve been forgetting this. Perhaps I should remember.

Final Fantasy VI: The Air Blade Trap

My last session ended at a wall: a confrontation with a trick boss. I haven’t yet got its measure down completely, but it cycles between two forms with different attacks and different weaknesses. I’m going to have to do some probing, then probably go back to the last save point (located conveniently outside its lair) and pick out more specialized equipment.

At this stage of the game, bosses of this sort are the only fights that present any difficulty at all. In particular, Sabin has a move called “Air Blade” that’s basically the “win fight” button, doing at least a thousand points of damage, and usually substantially more, to all enemies. Since it’s one of his moves that requires a hadouken-like rotating sweep of the D-pad, I don’t always execute it successfully, but that just means I endure one round of attacks before I get to try again. The rest of my party is basically just there to absorb damage, and sometimes to reduce the enemy’s ability to dish it out. Most of my characters have learned most of the spells available in the game, but the only ones I really use are the healing spells. Only the bosses force me to exercise my options more fully.

But then, I suppose that abusing Sabin isn’t my only choice. For example, I could probably do just as well through power-spellcasting. I got used to conserving mana in the early parts of the game, but that isn’t really a necessity now: my characters are rolling in the stuff, and pulling in enough cash to maintain a wagonload of mana restorative items. Ordinary melee attacks plus damage-enhancing items is also probably a valid approach; as it is, I’m keeping my characters mainly equipped with stuff to ward off status effects, which makes success in combat more certain, but reduces the variety of the experience. As I once said about Diablo, it’s important to have a strategy, but it doesn’t really matter what it is.

But personally, I find that once I hit on one approach that works, I tend to stick with it until it stops working. This may mean I’m the wrong sort of player for this sort of game, but if so, a lot of other players are in the same category. I remember this being a particular problem in Final Fantasy VIII. Summonables become available extremely early there, and were unusually cheap to cast, and for much of the game were as good a battle-ender as Sabin’s Air Blade. So a lot of players, it seemed, just used a summon in every fight, until they either got tired of watching the summon animations over and over and quit the game, or finally hit a battle where summoning alone didn’t cut it and abruptly had to learn to use the rest of the combat system. FF8 is usually considered one of the weakest of the series, partly (though not entirely) because of this problem. And I can see the same thing happening on a smaller scale here.

Final Fantasy VI: Now where were we?

It’s been over a year since my last session of FF6. I’ve spent a little while rereading my previous posts to remind myself of what was going on, so here’s a brief recap: Kefka destroyed the world. Characters in the game say as much. He continues to destroy it from time to time, clobbering towns with his destructo-beam for giggles from atop his unassailable mile-high tower, but the indomitable survivors continue to rebuild. Likewise, the player is rebuilding the party. You start with only Celes, who was once an imperial general, but whose main role in the story is that of girl. Before my hiatus, I had found Sabin, martial artist with his own special martial-arts-move interface, and I was stalking someone who looked exactly like Edgar, gadgeteer king, but who claimed not to be him. And by the end of my latest session, I had added Edgar to my party, as well as Setzer, shady gambler with his own airship. That airship was destroyed during the apocalypse, but once he was convinced to rejoin the old gang and topple the tower — something best attempted from the sky — he unveiled a replacement, called the Falcon, just in case you hadn’t caught on about the Han Solo wannabe thing yet.

Now, I hadn’t planned to take so long to get back to this game, but it seems to me that if there’s one spot in the game that’s ideal for an extended break, it’s here at the beginning of the second half. You get the player characters and their abilities introduced afresh, one by one, and until you get the airship, your choices about where to go are constrained, making it less important that you don’t remember what you were doing. My one regret is that I didn’t cut things off soon enough to get the full effect. If I had started this session with Celes still stuck alone on her island, I’d have essentially no immediate context to try to remember. As it is, I started off between a cave and a town, and didn’t remember which one I was headed towards and which I had just left — or, indeed, if I needed to go somewhere else entirely. I wound up wasting some time wandering around in a desert having random encounters. But I suppose I needed that time to refamiliarize myself with the combat mechanics, and, in particular, to relearn Sabin’s special moves (or at least the few worth using).

Still, I have to say that getting back into this game has been a joy, especially in comparison to the other games I’ve been playing lately. It definitely has by far the greatest sense of professionalism of everything I’ve hit so far in this year’s chronological rundown — in contrast to everything else, it doesn’t feel at all rushed or ill-conceived or technology primitive. Was 1994 some kind of turning point for the industry? Perhaps it’s the difference between console and PC games? Or maybe it’s just that I’m playing the 1999 Playstation remake instead of the original SNES version, which definitely has an impact on the UI, if nothing else.

Pool of Radiance: Other UI

I’d like to expand a little on what I said in my last post. What I said about combat mode applies just as well out of it: frequently, just when you think you’ve given the game enough information for it to execute your intentions, it asks for one more key.

For example, consider the act of memorizing spells. This is a (pre-4th edition) D&D game, and, as such, it uses the absurd Jack-Vance-inspired notion that spells have to be re-memorized every time you intend to use them. 1By 3rd edition, D&D was trying to mask the absurdity by replacing “memorize” with the more ambiguous “prepare”. That fixed the conceptual weirdness, but still left the problem that the mechanic itself was unfun and didn’t really fit what we expect of a wizard. So, every time I rest, I go into the spell-selection menu for each spellcaster, and I select “Cure Light Wounds” three times or whatever, and I hit “E” for Exit. But before the game allows me to actually exit, it asks me if the spells I just selected are the ones I want to memorize. 2[Added 5 February 2010]Actually, it’s even worse than I remembered. You have to press E twice. Once to get to the screen showing the spells you’ve selected, and one more time, once you’re there, to bring up the confirmation question. The second one in particular is completely unnecessary. You can do nothing at that screen except bring up the confirmation. It’s as if a Windows app popped up a dialog box saying “Press OK to bring up confirmation dialog”. Why, yes, I do, that is why I chose them. I can see why they did this: the interface that they chose for spell memorization otherwise provides for no way to see what you’ve selected, and no way to undo your choices. Thus does one bad design beget another. Once you’ve chosen the spells to memorize, you have to rest in order to do it. This involves hitting the “R” key twice — hitting it once brings up a menu where you can select how many days, hours, and minutes you want to rest, which is unnecessary detail most of the time, and best skipped unless the player requests it. Mercifully, if you’ve got spells to memorize, it automatically populates this form with the time necessary to memorize spells under the first-edition D&D rules — four hours and fifteen minutes for a level-1 spell, apparently. If your rest is interrupted by a wandering monster, however, it forgets all about what you were trying to memorize and you have to go through the spell-selection process from the start.

At the end of combat, there is loot. Let me switch gears and talk about Final Fantasy for a moment. Some (all?) of the Final Fantasy games prompt you to take loot after a battle. Sometimes it’s presented as an explicit question: Do you want to take this stuff? And it’s always struck me as unnecessary, because you never answer “No”. But it’s always seemed excusable there as providing a modicum of agency: you could turn down free stuff if you wanted to, and that makes it feel a little different from just having it foisted on you. It’s tolerable mainly because all it takes is a press of the default do-thing button, which you already have your thumb on at the time. In Pool of Radiance, you’re expected to press “T” for Take, then choose Money or Item, and then choose the individual moneys or items one by one from a further menu. For money, you get a menu of all the coin types, and have to select the type(s) you want (even if there’s only one type available), and then type in the quantity of that coin you want to take. And again, I can see where they’re coming from. In D&D, unlike in Final Fantasy, your carrying capacity is limited, and even coins have weight. There are definitely situations where you’d want to refrain from picking up a heap of copper pieces. But those are the exceptional cases. What you want to do most of the time (at low levels, at least) is take all the coins of every type. So that should be made easy.

I suppose the underlying problem is that, unlike other early CRPGs, Pool of Radiance wasn’t free to come up with game mechanics that suit the medium. The designers were trying to stay as close to the actual D&D rules as they could, or at least maintain the appearance of doing so. But even taking that into account, the UI here seems more demanding than it needs to be. It’s easy to say that today, with the benefit of more than two decades of usability research and gaming experience behind us, but it suffers even in comparison to its predecessors.

To take one final look at combat mode: I mentioned that there were two ways of selecting targets, “manual” mode, in which you move a cursor around (starting from the fellow doing the targeting), and the default mode, in which you cycle through possible targets with next/previous keys. Manual mode is a lot easier to deal with. You know why? It doesn’t require visual feedback between keypresses. You can look at the screen and say “I want to cast this spell at the guy three squares up and one square to the left”, then type M Up Up Up Left Enter and you’re done. With the cycling targeting, you have to check after each press of N to see whether you’re on the right guy yet or not. They made the cycling targeting system the default. This says to me that they were taking significant pauses between keypresses for granted — which is probably reasonable, given the state of hardware at the time. So is it just by luck that Wizardry and Might and Magic failed to fall into this trap?

1 By 3rd edition, D&D was trying to mask the absurdity by replacing “memorize” with the more ambiguous “prepare”. That fixed the conceptual weirdness, but still left the problem that the mechanic itself was unfun and didn’t really fit what we expect of a wizard.
2 [Added 5 February 2010]Actually, it’s even worse than I remembered. You have to press E twice. Once to get to the screen showing the spells you’ve selected, and one more time, once you’re there, to bring up the confirmation question. The second one in particular is completely unnecessary. You can do nothing at that screen except bring up the confirmation. It’s as if a Windows app popped up a dialog box saying “Press OK to bring up confirmation dialog”.

Might and Magic: UI

So, let’s talk user interface a bit. Might and Magic is essentially menu-driven, in a pre-GUI way. Nearly all interaction takes the form of single keystrokes, and all the applicable commands in the current context are displayed on the screen. In navigation mode, a big chunk of the screen is devoted to displaying an unvarying list of everything you can do. If the action you select requires you to make further choices, such as which object to use or which monster to attack, further lists will be presented (along with the option to back out and choose a different action by pressing Esc).

The one big exception to this is spellcasting. You choose spells by pressing two numbers, one indicating the level and one indicating the spell within the level, but the game doesn’t tell you what numbers correspond to what spells. In fact, the spell names and descriptions are found nowhere in the game itself, only in the documentation. More than a third of the manual is devoted to spell lists. This is something of a drag on combat at first, because you have to keep breaking your attention away to look up the number for the spell you want to cast, but it doesn’t take long to internalize the more frequently-useful ones. In Wizardry, you learn to associate the word DIOS with a basic level-1 healing spell; in Might and Magic, you develop the same association with the key sequence C-1-4.

The problem with this is that C-1-4 doesn’t always mean “cast the basic level-1 healing spell”. If the character who you wish to cast is is out of mana, the “C” option isn’t even part of the menu, and pressing it has no effect whatsoever. But you’ll press it anyway, because, having internalized that key sequence, you’re not looking at the menu any more; you’re typing it more as a gesture. The stranded keystrokes after the C are still meaningful, though: they make you switch to character 1 in your party roster and then immediately to character 4. This surprises the player, and therefore is not ideal behavior for a UI. And it could be avoided simply by accepting the full gesture and issuing a “Not enough MP” message afterward, like it does when you’re not completely out of mana but don’t have enough for the spell you’ve chosen.

My other major complaint is with menus that seem unnecessarily hierarchical. From the start menu, for example, you have to choose a town to start at, and from there you get a party-selection menu showing the player characters currently in that town. I’m only playing with one set of characters, and sometimes I forget which town they’re in, so I have to search through them all. This means going back to the main menu repeatedly. Switching from one town roster directly to another is not an unreasonable thing to expect — the game manages to switch directly between character details just fine. Similarly, entering a shop gives you a menu that lets you choose who’s shopping and what they’re shopping for (weapons, armor, miscellaneous items), but once you’re in one of the sub-menus for buying items, you can only change the character who’s buying by backing out. If I’m buying new armor, I’m probably buying new armor for multiple people.

It’s not all bad, though. That same shop menu also has an option for giving all the party’s gold to the current character, which is really useful (and simpler than doing it through the character menus). But it’s only useful because the game keeps a separate inventory for each character, which is an unnecessary complication, as Final Fantasy proved.

In fact, I’d say that Final Fantasy — which is also highly menu-driven, and came out around the same time as Might and Magic — generally provided a better UI. It was created for a digital gamepad, which is essentially the same thing as a keyboard, but shaped differently and with fewer keys — much fewer in the original NES version. But that limitation spurred innovation: without enough keys to give every menu option a unique keystroke, they had to come up with a simpler and more general menu-selection UI based on highlighting choices with the D-pad. It’s not a perfect system — in particular, it’s unwieldy for long menus — but it has the advantage of being easily improvable without changing the core interaction, as later ports proved.

Might and Magic: Whence Heroes?

The Might and Magic series is of course the source of the Heroes of Might and Magic series. So as I play the former, I’m keeping an eye peeled for connections to the latter. And, frankly, I’m not finding much. There are some spell names that the two have in common — in particular, the Town Portal spell, which I anticipated so greatly in Heroes Chronicles: Conquest of the Underworld, looks like it’ll just as useful here — but that’s pretty much it.

To be fair, this is the first episode, and it’s likely that it just hasn’t developed its identity yet. Most of what I’ve seen so far is just undistinguished D&D-style fantasy. But Final Fantasy started off the same way, and look where that ended up. Ultima was half sci-fi to start with, but toned that down considerably from episode 4 onward, when the Virtues of the Avatar became its defining characteristic. Might and Magic seems to have gone in the other direction, becoming more of a science-fantasy over the course of the first five episodes at least, with horizon-dominating planetary bodies becoming prominent on the cover art. But that’s an aspect that’s completely absent in HoMM as I know it. Considering that the first HoMM came out when the most recent Might and Magic game was set on the planet Xeen, I have to wonder what was going on there.

The one major thing I can see as an influence on HoMM so far is the outdoors sections. For one thing, the mere fact that they’re there. Might and Magic had an explorable wilderness before other Wizardry-style RPGs did — it predates the far simpler and less-varied outdoors in The Bard’s Tale II by a year or two. As a result, it establishes from the very beginning an environment for outdoor monsters. Venture into the mountains, for example, and you can wind up fighting herds of centaurs or pegasi — the same cantaurs and pegasi that would become core troop types for “rampart”-type cities in HoMM3. Obviously these aren’t unique to M&M — they’re part of the Narnia-esque mishmash of myth that forms part of D&D‘s core, and therefore the core of early RPGs in general. But that’s the part that’s generally neglected by other early RPGs in favor of the abominations-of-the-dungeon side, the troglodytes and oozes and spiders and so forth. It would be incongruous to find a pegasus wandering the corridors of an underground maze. (Not that Wizardry shied away from the incongruous.)

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.

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