Archive for February, 2013

Today I’d like to begin a “miniseries” about various media that strongly influenced my development as a person. While of course my environment, friends, personal disposition and parents all have the strongest impact on my formative years, I can’t ignore the connections to the entertainment industry. In reflecting on the main points of various games, movies and books I find that so many of these messages became my own anthems. I will begin this discussion with a pair of video games originally released in 1992 and 1994 respectively for the Sega CD: LUNAR: The Silver Star and LUNAR: Eternal Blue. They were remade for the Sega Saturn in Japan, and my fandom was the sole reason I bought the Saturn console. Much to my dismay, due to the untimely death of the Saturn’s market in America the games were ported to the Sony Playstation instead. Predictably, I acquired a Playstation in order to play the remakes. In fact, I love this game so much that I also purchased import copies of the Saturn versions in Japanese, and followed a few of the spin-offs and further remakes such as LUNAR Legend for the Gameboy Advance. Although the later remakes flesh out a few points that were never brushed upon in the other versions, my favorite renditions were the remakes released on the Saturn/Playstation as I feel these consoles were better capable of handling the ambitions of the studio.

LUNAR and LUNAR 2 are not revolutionary in gameplay by any stretch of the imagination. While these two games were some of the first RPGs I can think of that actually directly connected the first game and its sequel (including overlap of a couple of characters who reappear in Eternal Blue), they don’t challenge the traditional style of the JRPG. They don’t do all that much with the gameplay that adds breadth to the genre – in fact the only thing I can think of is that in LUNAR 2, your baby dragon companion, Ruby, will randomly attack enemies to finish them off if their health is low enough and sometimes revive fallen party members. But the play was hardly the draw in my book. The story – and the mode in which it is told – is the reason this game is so important to me. I will get back to that in a bit, though.

While the characters are not terribly multifaceted (other than Ghaleon, but I can’t describe the layers of his psyche without ruining part of the story), there were some archetypes that really spoke to mini-me. As an independent female, I was constantly searching for female characters in all forms of media to look up to. Sadly, I rarely found any strong women who were consistently so. Most frequently, even if there was an independent female character she would either mellow out over time and become less potent, or suddenly lose all power in supplication to whoever the male lead was. This frustrated little me to no small degree, and so when I saw the female characters in LUNAR and LUNAR 2 I was vindicated.

In The Silver Star, Luna is incredibly sweet, but short-tempered and fiery; Jessica is fiercely independent, forthright, and physically one of your strongest party members despite being a soft-hearted priestess and daddy’s girl; Mia is the most powerful mage short of Ghaleon, despite being physically and emotionally fragile and in fact steps up when the situation requires it, showing an inner core of iron will that even she was unaware she possessed. The women in fact rouse the men of the party to action when they are discouraged by seeming defeat at one point during the game, inspiring them through their disappointment, anger, and personally fiercer determination to get it in gear and never stop pressing forward. They are the ones who talk sense into the males and bring them back to the party.

In Eternal Blue, Lucia is naïve and torn between duty and her heart, but ultimately finds faith in her friends and her love beyond all else, gambling the fate of the world on her trust; Jean, a free-willed dancer, faces her dark past and overcomes it, turning it into a strength that she wields to save her friends and the world as a whole; Lemina shows a side of herself that’s hidden beneath her extroverted, forceful, materialistic businesswoman nature – one that is simultaneously fiery and sensitive, loyal to her friends and wholly devoted to the resurrection of her legacy as the descendant of Mia (from the original game): the Magic Guild of Vane.

Little Jala was entirely enamored of these characters. I saw many facets of myself in them, related very strongly to them, and responded to the game’s story overall with a strength that caused me to laugh and cry with the characters as the story progressed. I was drawn into the LUNAR universe at a time when my family was scattered and had moved to a new place, thus also separating me from my friends. I was alone and I clung to these games, playing them over and over again. Their positive messages of determination, faith, empowerment and love stuck with me. I would even say that my inborn optimistic streak was cultivated and kept alive despite the challenges I faced,  because of these games.

LUNAR and LUNAR 2 feature the same basic sprites you can find in any 16-bit RPG. The designs of the overworld maps and battles are nothing to write home about – but then again, given the storytelling mode of these games, the hardware itself probably couldn’t handle the graphical overload. The Sega CD had definite limitations as one of the first CD-based consoles, but even so Game Arts and Studio Alex were ambitious with the LUNAR titles, incorporating vast amounts of spoken dialogue and animated cut scenes. The remakes on the Saturn/Playstation further expanded these methods of storytelling, with literally hours of animation and dialogue throughout. The LUNAR games were the first I’d played with that much animation and that much spoken dialogue in an otherwise traditional JRPG. The frequency of these cut scenes eventually became the norm for most video games on the market, but at that time it was frankly a new concept as it turned the game into a movie that you interacted with and played through. The otherwise dull graphics are livened by the voices and the animated sequences, which are gorgeously done.

The music, composed by Hiroyuki Iwadare, is simply marvelous. The female lead of the first game, Luna, is a songstress whose voice summons powerful magic and thus she has a few scenes where she sings; in the second game, Lucia, who is related in specific ways to Luna, also has a few moments where she, too, sings, likely due to that tie. This adds a personal touch to the themes, as the songs reflect what these characters feel and think. The instrumental tracks however do a splendid job of carrying the weight of each emotion as it plays out on screen and during battle. The mood is well understood, and the music alone would often rally my heart with its stirring drums or bring tears welling up in my eyes from the mournful piano tracks. These soundtracks remain some of the video game music that I listen to with the greatest frequency. I never tire of them.

One facet that really caused a stir within me was a horrible little trick Game Arts/Studio Alex played with LUNAR: Eternal Blue. That is, you fight the epic battle to save the world at the end of the game, and there is a cut scene and the credits roll. But the ending isn’t exactly what I’d hoped for, and thus it left little Jala severely depressed upon initial completion. I was so depressed in fact that it was a week before I could even pick up my controller again, and despondently I went to beat the game a second time and re-watch that dissatisfactory ending. To my complete shock, on the main game screen I saw a new option: EPILOGUE. WHAT! Little Jala was beside herself! The epilogue to the second game (not a dynamic of the first, as you might conjecture) added a bit more gameplay, as well as a more acceptable ending. It totally faked me out, though, and made me miserable for a short time before I discovered what was really going on. This was the only game in my life that had ever pulled a trick like that on me.

As to the story, it is hard to go into any great detail without completely spoiling it for any potential new players. I will therefore be as general as possible.

The characters face predictably immense odds and must save the world, just like every other JRPG. However, there is an unshakeable faith that the main characters, Alex and Hiro, both have that forms the anthem of the games: that of the power of humanity. Ghaleon from LUNAR and Lucia from LUNAR 2 both place little faith in the power of the human spirit, because humans are short-lived and generally weak in the broader scope of things. Yet in both games, it is the strength of heart that these seemingly weak creatures possess – their unstoppable drive as short-lived beings – that wins the day. I don’t recall the original Sega CD versions as being overly preachy about the notion, but I do recognize that the Saturn/Playstation remakes do get preachy about it to grind the point home. However, by the time I played the remakes the notions were already firmly planted in my head and thus I wasn’t bothered by this at all. The games call into question the virtues of power and immortality, things that many people blindly desire. The decisions made during the game by some of the characters who wield power and/or possess immortality were interesting to my adolescent self.

When the games were brought to America they were published by Working Designs, headed by Victor Ireland. Now, Ireland and his crew took a fairly serious game and infused American pop culture of the time into it as well as several humorous bits in town interactions, despite immense criticism. I have to say though that Working Designs was phenomenal at localization, and I can’t imagine these games without Ireland’s touch. The English-language strategy guides – also written by Working Designs – retain the same humor found in the game itself and thus are consistent companion pieces. The voice acting is also wonderful, with my favorite being John Truitt. Truitt’s version of Ghaleon was very different from the Japanese seiyuu – in Japan Ghaleon has an authoritative, masculine, deep tone dripping with confidence; in America, his voice is extremely condescending, slightly nasal, and of considerably higher pitch, dripping with sarcasm. Any belief others may have that I am a purist due to my tendency of preferring the original version of imported games/movies/etc is entirely crushed by my preference for the American spin on these games despite also playing the Japanese versions during that same era of my life. It’s not that, for example, the Japanese voices are bad (at all!) – Akira Ishida plays Alex, and I simply adore him – but despite the changes the face of the games took the ports are still splendid. Another little “Easter egg” WD added was the inclusion of hilarious outtakes from the voice acting sessions at the end of the credits in LUNAR: Eternal Blue.

Another note about Working Designs: their presentation of the games when they ported the remakes to the Playstation was phenomenal. They included a whole box of omake (“extras”) for LUNAR: Eternal Blue Complete such as paper standees; a cloth map; a soundtrack; a hardbound, full-color manual; and best of all, a solid metal replica of Lucia’s pendant. This pendant was actually the reason why I bonded with my friend Ben, whom I met in college. He was a friend of a friend, and when I said hi and took a look at him I recognized the necklace he had on as Lucia’s pendant. We became friends over shared fandom. 🙂 The strategy guides released by WD for the remakes were equally awesome, particularly for the sequel. So, although they took forever to finish porting the games with release dates always being pushed back and although people criticized them for their little embellishments to the game’s script, I loved what they produced.

I have digital copies of the radio dramas that came out during that era for these games – at least, as many of them as I could find – as well as several comics, art books and even light novels (in Japanese mind you, which I’ve translated bits of and read as much as I can). Whatever it is that I could locate. My fandom for these games is ridiculous. Not as ridiculous as some wholly obsessed fans, I know, and I’m not going to get into a war about who the bigger fan is because I don’t frankly care, but for my particular “nerd level” I’m extremely dedicated to LUNAR.

Sadly the various spin-offs have never caught my attention, and the series seemed to disintegrate at a certain point. The remake of the first game on the GBA, LUNAR Legend, was a cute revamp but for any new player I would strongly recommend the Saturn/Playstation versions as they more fully express all that these games are, and the direction that Game Arts and Studio Alex were going with them.

LUNAR and its sequel will not seem quite as magical to the rest of the world, I know. But I do not hesitate at all to state that they helped to shape the person that I am today. If you play these games, you will find echoes of my personality reverberating through the characters and story as they infused me with myriad little tidbits that I wasn’t even aware I was soaking up at that time. LUNAR and LUNAR 2 were two of the most influential bits of entertainment to seep into my psyche as I developed as a human being, and thus no matter what these games hold special places in my heart and memory.

To end this entry, here are some fun facts:

  • LUNAR: The Silver Star was the first game I ever bought a strategy guide for, mostly because I wanted to fully explore the game more than I’d ever desired of any prior game.
  • LUNAR: Eternal Blue was the first game I ever pre-ordered.
  • LUNAR: Eternal Blue was the first game I bought merchandise for (games back then didn’t really spawn the whole chain of merch that they do these days). There was a watch with the LUNAR 2 cover showing Hiro, Ruby and Lucia backed by space and the Blue Star. I coveted this watch ridiculously and practically begged my mom to help me get it. She did. I still have the watch.
  • Working Designs was the first game publisher that I consciously followed. On faith that they published good games, I would buy titles simply because they were released by this company.
  • A few years back, I came across Victor Ireland (head of now-defunct Working Designs) selling some WD promo stuff on eBay. I shot him an email and we had a little back-and-forth conversation. This was super awesome. He’s a great guy, and was very kind to oblige an old fan. 😉
  • The LUNAR games were the first I purchased soundtracks for.
  • The LUNAR games were the first import games I bought.
  • The LUNAR games were the first games I bought comics for, let alone import books for.
  • The LUNAR radio dramas were my first experience with radio dramas overall.
  • My first serious game fandom was for the Shining Force games (already previously discussed on this blog). Although I certainly love them to this day with ardent strength, they did not affect my development as a human being whatsoever. They were just good, fun games that I really enjoyed playing. My second serious fandom (for LUNAR) remains my strongest game fandom to this day.