Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

I am finally able to play Resident Evil 6 as it was just released on Steam a few days ago. I was looking forward to it primarily because I prefer Leon to the rest of cast. So far I’ve played the Prelude and Chapter 1 of his campaign. As I haven’t played too far into it (I’ve been busy with other things and just playing a bit here and there) I can’t give any real in-depth thoughts, but I will talk in this entry about my initial reactions.

The first thing to grab me was the stark darkness of the visuals, and the strong lighting elements. Although it’s very cinematic by default via all the cutscenes, the feel of the game itself is visually striking with a distinct artistry to it that I appreciate to such a degree that I think in time I will end up painting fan art of the series for the first time ever due to the effective use of light and other elements to elicit the particular mood. As I haven’t tended towards generating much fan art in the past 6~8 years (Plants vs Zombies REBOOT in the early part of last year and being revived currently is the only fan art in recent history), this is a Big Deal.

The initial settings for the prelude and first chapter of Leon’s story are throwbacks to Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2: a mansion and a city gone mad. The way the enemies move is immediately noticeable as more zombie-like than in Resident Evil 4 or 5, again much more like the first games in the series. Adding the dramatic/cinematic music to this makes the whole thing feel like a chaotic action/horror movie that you get to play through. And indeed, the gameplay has been extremely linear with less room to explore than in 4 or 5. While this isn’t too much of an issue on this first play-through, I can see how the linearity would adversely affect replay value. However, replay is a long way off for me as there are 3 additional campaigns to roll through as well as the Mercenaries, Mercenaries No Mercy, and the other extra modes (Agent Hunt, Onslaught, etc) for me to play with before I even think of starting a campaign over again.

Addressing co-op, Slade just bought the game on Steam. I have co-oped yet, but it will occur in the near future. One thing I will say however is that I am IMMENSELY glad that while the PC version of the game still requires an additional login, it does NOT go through Windows Live the way Resident Evil 5 does. This is always a plus in my book as GFWL is a nightmare. Instead it goes through a specific Capcom login for residentevil.net, a website devoted solely to Resident Evil 6 which has a few things to do and look at: world records; online events (none so far but I think they’re in the works); forums; stat charts; unlockables (costumes for the characters in-game, wallpapers and icons etc for the site); dioramas where you purchase figures and settings and create scenes. The site seems to still be in the works, but has a nice presentation and is fun in and of itself for me to just log in and poke around. The first thing I intend to use my points for will be the pirate costume for Leon.

As regards the gameplay itself, there have been some new additions to the repertoire: you can move while shooting for example. Additionally, there is a whole new set of melee moves that is separate from your weapon (though finishing melee moves change depending on your gun/knife). There are also finishing moves that involve utilizing your surroundings and/or whatever the enemy is carrying or has stuck in its body. You can also become downed yet attack and catch a second wind to revive yourself if your partner can’t come to your aid (although I haven’t done this yet there is an achievement for it). Several of the elements are more strongly co-op survival horror similar to Left 4 Dead.

As to the enemies, there are types of zombies that correlate to Special Infected from L4D2 either in their appearance or function, though thankfully they are not Xerox copies. In either case this of course facilitates the special Steam-only L4D2/Resident Evil 6 mash-up and makes me wonder if such was the plan all along (conspiracy theory style!) or if it was just Capcom borrowing what works from relevant games (the likely answer). Honestly though I can just imagine the crazy conversation between Valve and Capcom once Valve saw that they ripped these tropes from L4D (which rips off Killing Floor, thus the spiral continues)…

“So we totally jacked your Special Infected with slight alterations. U mad, bro? Don’t be, ’cause you can totally cash in too. Howzabout we throw your renders into our game? People will totally buy it and the programming will be cake since we ripped your enemies and all. You can promote your Workshop too and make the FANS create the skins for the main cast of OUR game. Just think of it! Total WIN, bro!”

About the story so far…well, let me first explain some things about my responses to 4 and 5 as I feel that is important to my response about 6.

I enjoyed Resident Evil 4’s story as it was a sort of total derailing and kind of left field in a good way. It introduced Las Plagas and threw its cultivation in with a crazy cult which somehow managed to kidnap the President’s daughter (?! Not sure how that happened but okay, we’ll roll with it). What was awesome about this for me was that the setting was totally different than prior installments (at least until the end segment on the island); the enemies didn’t act like regular zombies and as the game progressed were more advanced and had armor and weapons of their own; the creepy cult was not creepy in a zealous way (i.e. there isn’t some “I WORSHIP THEE OH GOD OF MINE”) but rather just as a front for the testing and so forth; and finally Leon was so sarcastic and entertaining that he amused me more than the other main characters in the series. He more or less just acted like the whole thing was old hat (which it was after the Raccoon City incident) and even went back and forth with Salazar in a playful, retarded fashion the way teenage boys insult each other. While this meant that the game was more light-hearted than it really should have been, it charmed me between the action-style mechanics and the sheer fun of the various enemies, settings and situations. I have to admit that while this installment is a step away from survival horror, I was nonetheless constantly making the D: face and getting creeped out by the enemies. I remember distinctly several moments of “oh sh**—!”: the first time you encounter a chainsaw zombie in town and when you fight Chief Mendez and he turns into a scorpion-like monster for example – those were perhaps the two strongest memories for me.

Resident Evil 5 is even less like survival horror, but is a really fun game to co-op. I must admit that the story was really stupid in my opinion, and furthermore I wasn’t interested in the characters. The character highlight for me was the first fight with Wesker when he constantly condescends to Chris (whom I’m not fond of). I couldn’t really follow how the hell we got to some of the locations (a Mayan-like temple ruin? What is this, Indiana Jones? Tomb Raider?), but all the same it was fun. There were parts particularly in the beginning that were just really fun to play – and even more fun to play sequentially without taking a break. The pacing was great for the first bit in particular. I loved fighting through town only to have a crazy car chase, then to fight El Gigante (where’d he come from?!). The latter half was less interesting to play through but still fun to a degree. The final fight was both irritating (the environment) and then ridiculously easy (actually fighting Wesker). Returning to the story bit, Excella didn’t interest me (why does the head of Tricell look like a Russian Bond girl?), Jill’s return was predictable, and Wesker ranting about becoming a god was rather trite. And who was that weasly blonde guy with the overdone accent and white suit again? He was stupid and served little purpose. Mendez was a better “mid boss” by far, and Salazar had way more personality than Excella. Resident Evil 5 is one of the EXTREMELY rare instances where I don’t care about any of the characters, think the story is stupid yet can still enjoy the game due to the mechanics and pacing. The only part in the whole game that entertained me to any great degree was during the first fight with Wesker: Chris grabs Wesker and says, “I am SICK of your BULLSHIT!” and stabs him in the neck with the serum that will allegedly poison him. I would replay that fight countless more times just to watch/hear that again. I was severely entertained by that one line.

Now as regards Resident Evil 6, with as few expectations about the story as I have at this juncture thanks to the crap I had to sit through during 5’s cinematics, there’s little it can do to screw it up worse as my bar is set very low having just come off of a fresh play-through of 5 with my sister (thanks for sitting through that, sis, at least the co-op was fun if you can ignore the retardation of the story).

The first thing that I noticed when I started it up is Leon’s completely shell-shocked reaction to the situation escalating around him. He’s suffering some strong post-traumatic stress disorder, and while he’s still functional he’s also very sober and weathered. He looks notably older than he did in 4, and has not been sarcastic or cocky at any point during the prelude and first chapter of his campaign. While I know that 6 chronologically is years after 4, I suppose part of what I mean is that he overall has matured further from his last appearance. I really like this aspect though, because he’s been sobered up quite a bit over the course of his two CG movies and now in his current grave situation.

I find the hints of romance with Helena to be pretty entertaining in that “forced romance” facepalm sort of way – I wonder what Ada will think whenever she makes her usual convenient appearance. Ada was after all Leon’s first predestined “I must fall in love with you for no viable reason because the plot demands it” object of affection. At least with Helena you can chalk up the attraction to being pitted against dire circumstances which they must face side by side kind of thing. She doesn’t have a lot of personality to my mind as of this juncture though and thus as much as I’d like to have a female character to identify with, she just hasn’t captured my attention and has been set up as the suffering, formerly sinful heroine. This was already done before in 4 via Luis Sera, but at least Luis had a bit more personality regardless of whether or not you liked that particular character. Perhaps (hopefully) when I play the Jake/Sherry campaign I will take a liking to Sherry, as I’ve never been interested in Ada’s character either.

So far I still can’t see what is going on insofar as the overall plot of 6. That is, everything went to hell but I don’t know who unleashed this particular outbreak. There’s only so many times the same trick will be effective though so I hope that there’s a quasi-interesting plot behind it. However, it’s a Capcom game and in particular a game in this specific series that follows 5’s inanity, so I’m not really hoping for much. It’s a nice visual and aural showing of the Resident Evil line though, and I’m sure the co-op will be a lot of fun when I get the chance. As long as I have those things I will enjoy the game even if there are several other failings. I already know that via my experiences with Resident Evil 5.

Advertisements

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.

The Shining series is a massive set of RPGs which began with シャイニング&ザ・ダクネス (Shining and the Darkness; released in America as Shining in the Darkness) in 1991, later to span a wide variety of consoles and systems and entering multiple RPG sub-genres (action RPG, strategy RPG, dungeon crawlers, etc). The most well-known and oft-played of the 20 or so games in this series is シャイニング・フォース 神々の遺産 (Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention), a turn-based strategy RPG originally released in 1992 on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive.

I have not played more than a few minutes of Shining in the Darkness. Shining Force however was my introduction to RPGs. My sister rented it from Blockbuster, and suggested that I try it out. The moment I started to play it, I was hooked. Back then, the video game trope of “evil arises after 1,000 years and you must now save the world as the Chosen Hero” was new to me. Even so as I watched/read the opening I distinctly remember blushing from embarrassment at how corny the main premise was. Nevertheless, I played. And played. And played. I became so wrapped up in the game that when I beat it, as the ending played out I was so overwhelmed that I cried. The credit roll is spectacular, as it shows snippets of all of your prior battles throughout the entire game. I remember that I felt an immense sort of pride as I watched these “flashbacks.” When it was all over and little Simone (the trademark elf girl with whom you interact on the Start screen) appeared and finished reading the “story,” I felt entirely crushed that it was over. That things ended the way that they did. That there was no more.

The only other game to make me respond that way was ルナ ザ・シルバースター (LUNAR: The Silver Star), originally released on the Mega CD also in 1992 (1993 for America’s Sega CD). It, like Shining Force, has seen various remakes, prequels and sequels. LUNAR was the highest-selling Sega CD game as well as the second highest-selling Mega CD title of all time, selling nearly as many copies as the system itself. But that is for another review!

Before LUNAR, there was Shining Force. Sadly, Shining Force saw one of the weakest translations in the Shining series, and so several plot points which were explained in the Japanese original were left out entirely in the English-language version. The main character, Max, had a bit of backstory: he was found washed up on the shore with amnesia by Lowe, who thereafter became his best friend. Later on in the game, Lord Kane of Runefaust expressed his regret that Darksol caused him to fight Max, but this was never explained. In the Japanese original (and the Game Boy Advance remake, Shining Force: Resurrection of the Dark Dragon), however, you were told that Kane and Max were actually brothers. Nevertheless, translation FUBARs aside, the game is very fun to play and has a high replay value.

The races of the Shining world include humans, elves, dwarves, centaurs, foxlings, wolflings, and kyantol. The kyantols are a race of canine-like humanoids who are very intelligent and caring and generally fulfill the role of healers. There have been no named or playable male kyantol, however, suggesting that the kyantol race is female-dominant or that only female kyantols wield the powerful healing magic for which the race is known for. There are other races found throughout the series, but they are relatively rare.

Playable character classes include warriors, knights, archers, mages, priests, monks, winged warriors (birdmen) and wing knights (in Shining Force, this is a human in a mechanical suit; in later games, there are pegataur – pegasus centaur — knights), as well as a large number of outliers whom you only ever get one of such as a werewolf, steam knight, ninja, samurai, cyborg, dragon, and mage knight. Each class possesses different strengths and weaknesses, and suffer mobility issues in certain terrains. Additionally, individual characters have different ways of developing and will improve at different parts of the game, at varying speeds. You can have up to 12 party members (including Max, who must attend every battle as the leader) in your party at a time, and can switch out characters in between battles. I have always tended to level up every character to keep them all current, within a few levels of each other. As aforementioned there is a certain amount of variegation in the characters, and some are simply not as (and never become as) useful as others. Your most powerful character, however, is unquestionably Max. But if Max dies, the battle is lost regardless of how many enemies or allies are left on screen.

After a character gains 100 experience points, he or she will gain a level. At level 10, you have the option of promoting your character to an advanced class. Although this promotion ends up making the character weaker at first, after a few levels the promoted classes develop considerably faster and more effectively than the base classes. One frustration which I have always had is that although new characters generally start out a level or two below yours, the game introduces several characters in later chapters who are significantly below your level, but who develop well and are extremely useful if you can get them up to speed (these characters include but are not limited to Adam, the cyborg; Torasu, the priest; and Alef, the mage). However, the grind to level up these characters is tough as pretty much any attack against them will kill them, and they deal little damage. I always end up going through the motions to level them up in either case, although you certainly do not need to do so in order to complete the game as you have plenty of other characters to use.

The types of enemies you face in the game range from your traditional goblins and dwarves to zombies, cyborgs, and a variety of robots, chimeras, possessed dolls and clowns, worms, sea creatures, and so on. Certain enemies cast magic, inflict poison or sleep status, have a high chance of attacking twice per turn or dealing critical damage. You may find incredibly strong weapons and rings which are cursed and cannot be unequipped, afflicting your character with damage after every turn or stunning him/her. (The curse must be removed by a vicar in a town or outpost.) The battles take place in forests, hills, towns, aboard a ship, inside a circus, in a sanctuary, inside caverns, on cliffs, and so on. Some of the most memorable battles for me include the fight against the Marionette and his dolls and clowns in the circus of Rindo, the fight against the Kraken on the ship, the battle against the Laser Eye on the cliffs, the fight against Chaos and his cybernetic minions, the battle at the Tower of the Ancients, and countless more.

Although it’s an old game, it somehow elicited a feeling of growing paranoia and creepiness when I first arrived at Shade Abbey and the occupants followed me into the sanctuary, simultaneously blocking my escape route just prior to turning into zombies and ghouls. In Manarina, I was turned into a chicken and all of the characters I interacted with as a chicken had special hen-only dialogue. I pushed a cart into a girl in Alterone and she got mad and pushed me into the water. I talked to a silly hamster in a helmet in a little cottage by the Gate of the Ancients, and he later joined me and became the most pointless character ever as all of his stats (except movement) are 1, and he is incapable of gaining a level. I rescued a werewolf from the brink of insanity and he joined my Force. I encountered a man named Boken (in Japanese, 冒険 {boken} means “adventure”) who is seeking thrills and excitement and subsequently reunited with him countless other times in further towns I visit during the course of the game. Many great gems of interaction happen in every village, to where it’s priceless to walk around talking to people before and after each battle. It is also entertaining to go to your headquarters to interact with your party members, who will divulge different bits of information about themselves throughout your journey. Not to mention, of course, that talking to people is how you end up getting several secret party members. The game manages to make you laugh, sets up scenarios which are ominous and foreboding, and brings into play so many fun elements that the game is beautiful simply for its variety.

The music is one of the strongest aspects of Shining Force. This is something that its descendants lack. The music in the games that came after the original Force had good soundtracks, don’t get me wrong, but nothing quite as powerful as the score for the 1992 game. Even now, I have some of the battle themes on my iPod and always feel myself spurred into action by them.

Many people loved Shining Force II more than the original game as the sequel improved on several aspects of the mechanism, featured many of the same scenarios (such as for example the popular kraken battle), and expanded the length and breadth of the game style. In America, few of the Shining titles were released at all, or released on popular systems. Being an almost exclusively Sega title — Sega of America making several poor decisions which made later consoles bomb — its various non-Force titles were most popular in their home country. In Japan where Sega was more successful, fans played the whole series of games.

The Shining series came out on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Game Gear, Mega CD/Sega CD, Palm Pilot, Sega Saturn, and at length moved to mobile phones in Japan with multiple releases that were entirely inaccessible outside of that country. Eventually, too, the series continued on the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation Portable. The original Shining Force game is now available on iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod), Steam, and Wii Virtual Console. Steam also has Shining in the Darkness and Shining Force II available. There was also a Shining anime OAV series, called Shining Tears x Wind.

Bridging the gap between Shining Force and Shining Force II were Shining Force Gaiden and Shining Force Gaiden II. Gaiden II was released in America on the Game Gear as Shining Force: Sword of Hajya, but the original Gaiden was never released Stateside. Both of these games were remade on the Mega CD as one title, known in America as Shining Force CD. Gaiden/Shining Force CD takes place 20 years after Shining Force, and details the adventures of some of the original cast as well as their children.

I had a tragic encounter with Shining Force CD. I’d found it at Toys R Us as a child, and it was the last copy available. I eagerly bought it. While my mom was driving me home, I tried to take the game CD out of the case. It broke in half! (T_T) There were no other copies of the game to be had, and so I never did get to play it. Later on down the line the game proved completely impossible to locate, and so to this day I have never experienced the story of the children of the original Shining Force. As you might gather from the tragedy of my copy of Shining Force CD, I have not played every Shining title. However, some of the spin-offs actually contain snippets of story which tie into the canon, with characters and basic elements that come into play in the main games. Shining the Holy Ark, for example, ties into Shining Force III.

My favorite game in the series is Shining Force III. It was released on the Sega Saturn as a three-part game, where each game is separate but intertwined. The save data from Scenario I, for example, can be carried over and used when you play Scenarios II & III. It features one large, overarching storyline that involves THREE “Shining Forces” and their journeys towards a common goal. There is a heaping load of political intrigue, strong characterization for your party members that develops over time, crossing paths where the Shining Force leaders interact with one another and help each other, and the grand finale in Scenario III is a massive battle utilizing all three Shining Forces. The gameplay is set up in the traditional Shining Force strategy RPG style, but brings a lot more to the table in terms of battle scenarios where you had to really time your movements, split your forces to tackle multiple objectives or gain bonuses, and so on. One very memorable battle in Scenario I was a fight at a railway switching point just outside the town of Railhead, where two trains move slowly towards each other with each turn and you must move wisely so that your characters do not get separated and eradicated. There is also a time limit, as you need to stop Imperial soldiers from killing refugees who were attempting to flee the Empire.

Another addition is bonus tombs and treasure hideaways on the same map as the main battle. You cannot enter these locations unless you have a map for the ruins. As soon as you open them, a thief comes along and enters, starting a tomb raiding race. In order to get the treatures, you must send in your swiftest troops to either reach the chests first (provided they aren’t locked), or to attack the thief after he unlocks the chests, making him drop the treasure (your attacking party member immediately picks it up after the exchange). However, there are also guardian monsters in the tombs and hideaways that you must defeat or avoid. If the thief exits the ruins with the treasure, the ruins close off and your party members are returned to the main map empty-handed. It’s another element to the gameplay that you will certainly want to participate in as some of the best bonus items and weapons are found in such locations. In addition to new play elements and a further expanded game, the storyline itself trumps anything that the first or second installments could hope to offer.

In Japan, if you bought all three games and sent off the UPCs to Camelot (the game production company), you would receive Shining Force III: Premium Disc, a not-for-sale promo bonus disc with tons of fun extras. On Premium Disc you can mix and match party members from all three Shining Forces, replay battles, view artwork and the character models, and fight certain creatures and bosses that were exclusively released on this game disc.

Unfortunately for American and European players, only Scenario I was released on the Sega Saturn before the game system met its demise everywhere but Japan (it continued on for some time there; that’s why the Saturn is great for import titles). However, should you own a Saturn or have an emulator for the Saturn on your computer, and further get a hold of copies of the games, Shining Force Central features scripts for most of Scenario II and Scenario III in addition to detailed information on EVERY Shining game.

As a Shining Force fangirl and in particular a Shining Force III fangirl, I am very proud to say that I own the US and Japanese versions of Scenario I, as well as Scenarios II and III and the Premium Disc. I also have copies of these import books: Shining Force III artbook, Shining and the Darkness guidebook, and the three official Sega guidebooks for Shining Force III (one for each Scenario). I also have the Shining Force III soundtrack CD. 😀 If I could find it, I’d certainly have more Shining Force stuff, although I’m not interested in fanatically collecting everything that has the game name affixed on it (just stuff that I find useful in some way).

As much as I love Shining Force III, the game would not exist without Shining Force (the first game). I love all three of the direct installments of this series, and have special memories of each. I’d definitely recommend all three of these (Shining Force, Shining Force II, Shining Force III) as well as the remake of the first game (Shining Force: Resurrection of the Dark Dragon) to anyone, although other games in the Shining series are more difficult and harder to get into (Shining in the Darkness) or are just not as good (Shining Force NEO, Shining Soul, Shining Tears, etc).

I began my experiences with The Elder Scrolls series with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. My boyfriend of the time saw the game when it came out in 2002 and immediately flipped out because he’d played the prior games and loved them. So, it was natural for him to buy it. Of course, I wound up watching him play and then playing it myself at length, for hours and hours. It was in fact the game that transformed me from a strictly console gamer into a PC gamer. Although I’d played other PC titles before this one, Morrowind arrested my attention entirely. I bought a laptop specifically to play the game. I’ve no idea how many hours I played, but I can safely assume I spent more of my time on Morrowind than on any other game I can think of. Ironically, I did not own my own copy until more recently when my best friend purchased it for me via Steam.

Time had dulled my reasoning for utterly loathing the next installment in the series, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, when it hit the shelves in 2006. I’d remembered that I’d completely adored Morrowind and abhorred Oblivion, but I didn’t recall specific reasons until I started a new play-through this month. Now, since my initial response to Oblivion I went back and played it several times over the years, and in fact played it a lot this year. I came to appreciate the game for what it is, and I do have a copy of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim awaiting me when I get a replacement computer (my old one died), but I still feel as though my heart will forever remain in Morrowind (at least until Bethesda releases an installment for the series that can match the feel of that game).

Now, I do in fact love retro gaming, but in a game like The Elder Scrolls that “retro” feel can get aggravating at times. And I don’t mean to pantomime that Morrowind is a perfect game, because it is quite far from it. However, there are certain elements in the third installment to the series that its descendants distinctly lack even though other things were dramatically improved with Bethesda’s experience and resources. Although there are probably more cons than pros in Morrowind, the pros are, for me, so worth it that I can’t help but prefer the game. It just left a remarkable impression on me. But, I will offer as fair a comparison of the two games as I can given my decided preference (Morrowind and Oblivion; as stated I can’t play Skyrim yet).

My boyfriend watched me play Morrowind recently, and in seeing the starting town of the game he made the sarcastic remark that “it’s Oblivion beta.” However, I feel that this is an unjust comment as he was shooting from the hip and judging from the only area of the game to resemble Cyrodiil. Moreover, what Morrowind did for the series in its heyday was a larger leap than what Oblivion took upon its release.

Morrowind and Oblivion share certain common ground, particularly in the beginning: you’re a prisoner from the Imperial City dungeon, and Emperor Uriel Septim has granted you freedom. In Morrowind, this plays out with you sitting in the hold of a ship; you’re in exile from your home in the province of Cyrodiil, and are released in Morrowind and given an “errand boy” task to start with. It’s a calm and slow introduction to the world and the controls, and gives the player the feeling of exploration and adventure. This is a new world that you’ve been thrown into, and you have to sort out what you’ll be doing with yourself from there. It’s rather like if you were a convict from England, who was exiled to Australia and turned loose. You can choose to start the main quest, or just ignore it and do what you please. Oblivion’s approach is considerably more action-oriented and grabs your attention immediately: you’re literally in the prison, and a Dunmer across the way is taunting you. The guards come in, ushering the Emperor himself through, and run off through an underground passage in an attempt to escape assassins out for his life. You get released in the process, follow along, and have to fight the Mythic Dawn assassins, rats, goblins, and whatever else you come across in the sewers. The Emperor tells you that he was dreaming of you (uh…) and that you’re the magical person who is going to save the world (more or less). So, Oblivion starts from the gate with a grander introduction which requires you to complete part of the main quest in order to progress. I will say that Oblivion gets the point for this category for that very reason, as in Morrowind I very quickly ran off to explore and quite completely forgot about the main quest, as it started out with “deliver this package to this guy in this city” – nothing earthshaking or world-rending. So Oblivion does get you going pretty dramatically and immediately. However, the downfall for me is that the main quest line in Oblivion just bores me to tears. I’m just not interested in it. At all.

Graphically I can’t fairly compare the two games, as Oblivion will of course win as it is the newer game. However, Morrowind’s environments are much more foreign and give a distinctly otherworldly feel whereas Oblivion is rather standard European fantasy with a certain uniformity regardless of where in the world you go. Morrowind’s cultures are distinct; Oblivion cities, while different from one another, have nothing on the breadth of difference between Morrowind’s Balmora and Vivec and their surroundings. The starting port town of Seyda Neen is Imperial-owned and rather literally looks like Oblivion’s Imperial City Waterfront; it’s obvious that Bethesda ported this area over into the architecture of Cyrodiil when they developed it. So, don’t be fooled by the first town you’re in; it’ll look pretty familiar if you are retro gaming the third installment from Oblivion. But Vivec, for example, is the home of House Hlaalu, one of the noble clans of the Dunmer (a member of the Hlaalu clan surfaces in Oblivion, if that name sounds familiar). It is comprised of Central and South American-style ziggurats, and all the houses, temples and shops are found within them. The guards in Vivec are also markedly different than anywhere else, as they are part of the religious order there. Outside Vivec you will find, most notably, giant mushrooms which dwarf the trees. That is just one example of the differing style of the regions. Another fascinating aspect of Morrowind are the Dwemer ruins, which are quite “steampunk” and Romanesque in flavor. They are mysterious and creepy yet full of treasure, and occur with low frequency. This makes your discovery of these ruins a special occasion, and all the more memorable. There is also another central region which a gorge with high cliffs on either side, where red sandstorms blow and scary flying creatures called Cliff Racers prey on you when the wind blows and you can’t see them clearly. There are sunken, haunted shipwrecks, the caves of the Kwama (an insectoid creature), plantations with slaves, and countless other things to see out and around the world. The town of Suran is home to skooma addicts, sodden drunks, and a red light district complete with strip club. I can’t even count the number of ways that the sheer variety of Morrowind’s environments are memorable, distinct, and full of adventurous flavor.

The graphics in Morrowind’s world are still pretty impressive despite their age, especially for the time frame during which it was released. The humanoids are ugly as sin, but admittedly The Elder Scrolls has never had attractive-looking characters. In Morrowind, the people are clunky, somewhat blocky, and awkward; you also can’t customize your own character past certain presets. Even so, the environments are still beautifully crafted, even if they look more realistic in Oblivion. Both games share the same issue of having a very, very short soundtrack for such an expansive game. Even so, the music for both games – composed by Jeremy Soule – is gorgeous, somewhat ambient, and never grows old (for me at least). The reason for the limited soundtrack is simply the expansiveness of the rest of the game: Oblivion’s disc was 2/3 voice acting according to the executive producer Todd Howard, and I’m certain that Morrowind’s graphics took up most of the available disc space for that game. Morrowind does not have nearly the number of vocal tracks that Oblivion has. There are the greetings from everyone you meet when you walk up to them or past them, and certain parts with voice acting, but most of the dialogue is found in dialogue boxes that you have to (gasp!) read.

“Fast travel” in the games work differently, and in my opinion is better in Morrowind. In Morrowind, there are giant flea-like creatures called Silt Striders, whose exoskeleton was carved into in order to make room for travelers to ride on their backs. For a small fee, you can fast travel. If for example you are trying to get from Seyda Neen (in the far south) to one of the northern areas, you have to ride a Silt Strider from town to town around the coastline (a total of 2-3 trips). Although this is not as direct and convenient as Oblivion’s simple “click-and-travel” method, it’s much more convincing for immersion and world development reasons and also encourages you to just go wherever you’re headed on foot. Moreover, the distance between towns is not ridiculous; you can get to where you’re going without too much trouble. In some instances it almost seemed faster (to me) to just walk there than to go looking for the Silt Strider. Additionally, Morrowind’s approach encourages you to fully explore the town you’re in before you hop off to the next one, since you have to pay to ride the Silt Strider.

Leveling in Morrowind is a slow process when compared to Oblivion. I remember that the first time I finally gained a level in Morrowind I rejoiced, and every time after that I also rejoiced. It’s an event, to be sure. Well, in Oblivion it’s a lot faster, and in my opinion this is detrimental to the gameplay. As you increase in levels in Oblivion, the monsters and guards you fight also increase in level; however, at a certain point the monsters are “capped” and nothing more challenging presents itself, thus leaving you rather bored and without a suitable challenge to your power. In Morrowind, the enemies and the guards do NOT level with you, which is a drawback; but in this case, it takes so long to level that it isn’t really an issue for awhile and the main quest keeps you rather challenged.

Being evil is a lot easier to do in Morrowind. As previously mentioned, nothing levels with you so after a certain point the guards are no longer a threat to your nefarious power. But also, if you attack a citizen inside a house where there are no guards, even if they scream for the guards to come they will not show up. While this is more realistic than the supernatural ability of the guards in Oblivion to just know when someone caught you doing something sinister, it can deflate the fun of it over time (even though when you start the game, common citizens can, frankly, take you down). Also, the AI for the NPCs doesn’t allow for them to run from you as they will do in Oblivion, so you can easily kill people and steal all of their stuff. And, you can store your goods wherever you want to as items do not relocate themselves as they do in Oblivion’s barrels and boxes. I can’t even begin to tell you how many homes I took over and redecorated. And guess what? There is no system of distinguishing “stolen” from “honest” goods, so you can sell anything to anyone. The game pretty much encourages debauchery and villainy. In that way, although Morrowind’s style is fun and exciting in a chaotic sense, it’s more thrilling to do evil in Oblivion where you might get caught and have to run from a swarm of guards and try to remove the bounty on your head via the Thieves’ Guild…provided you can actually get away from the tireless, superhuman authorities who all seem to be kin to Superman.

Something that I appreciate in Morrowind that is lacking in Oblivion is the sheer number of different types of plates. I’m not joking. Plates, cups, etc, come in myriad different shapes, sizes and styles, as they would in the real world. And everything has a value if you try to sell it. So, if you kill somebody in Seyda Neen and take all their dishes, brooms, buckets, candlesticks, etc and sell them, you can turn a nice profit. I found myself killing people, taking over their homes, and then redecorating the ones I wanted to “keep” with whatever plates, cups, silverware, etc that I found out in the world and took a liking to. I spent hours redesigning my new home on my initial play-through. While you can also do this in Oblivion, it’s not nearly as fun as the crap you have to choose from is pretty finite and uninteresting. Some of the unimportant household goods in Morrowind are just cool. I seriously would scour around looking for a sixth plate to match the five like it that I had in my home in Balmora. In Oblivion you just buy furnishings for a home that you purchase in each town (for a quest line no less!), but in Morrowind it’s do-it-yourself from start to finish. And it’s really fun, in a pointless sort of way. There’s no real reason to redecorate other than the fact that you can. But should you decide to scrap it all and sell your housewares, you’ll also turn a pretty penny!

A major difference in Morrowind is that you don’t ever gain map markers for the random ruins, caves, and other miscellaneous places you come across in the world. I remember distinctly that one time I was leading an NPC towards some destination she’d asked me to take her to, and saw a cave that I wanted to go into. Since you don’t get a map marker for these sorts of locations I had to go inside when I saw it, so I did. Only…I sort of misplaced my NPC and my quest didn’t ever show me where SHE was, just where the location I was supposed to take her was. Oops. Needless to say I never finished that side quest. So, Oblivion did a much better job with that particular dynamic, at least insofar as the quest objective bit goes. Even so, Morrowind’s style again encourages you to just jump in that cave while you still have the place in your sights since you won’t necessarily remember where it is later. But as frustrating as it can be, it nevertheless retains that “adventurer” quality because you have to try to remember and return there later if you can’t go in at the time for whatever reason, quite like if you were really roaming around some foreign land. If you could make your OWN map markers, it would have made this aspect of the game fairer, although perhaps not as fun in some ways. For me it’s a “love/hate” sort of thing. Sometimes I think this is pretty cool that these “optional extras” are not just handed to you on a silver platter like they are in Oblivion, but then at other times when I’m trying (unsuccessfully mind you) to locate a place I’d come across but not explored I curse the game designers for not having thought of marking the stupid map. But I like not having the game system lead you straight to everything because it allows you to discover (and rediscover) constantly.

Another small and sort of random thing that I like about Morrowind are the books. They’re not nearly as plentiful as they are in Oblivion, and there is a wider variety. They’re actually interesting to read. I found myself actually gleaning some information from them, versus how it is in Oblivion where you find five hundred billion copies of The Lusty Argonian Maid and don’t even bother reading any books at some point other than to open them to see if they will grant you skill increases. In Morrowind you start to learn more about the lore of the world and find yourself immersed in it without the complete inundation of volumes found in the later games.

The world outside the towns does not include random monster encounters to the same frequency as Oblivion. You do come across creatures which will attack you, but you can actually walk from one town to another on foot and not have a single fight. In Oblivion it gets rather repetitive and irritating to keep fighting whatever happens to attack you, but in Morrowind it makes the battles more significant. Also, the programming for Morrowind did not include highwaymen out on the roads trying to steal your stuff, so you only really encounter bandits inside their hideouts. This was better done in Oblivion, to be sure, but even so I felt more excited to roam EVERYWHERE in Morrowind because I wasn’t having to stop every two seconds to fight something. I feel that Morrowind’s less frequent battles add to the game tremendously.

The weapons and armor and their corresponding skills have a bit more specification in Morrowind. There are light, medium, and heavy armor categories (versus Oblivion’s light and heavy), short and long blades (as in, there is a “short blade” skill and a “long blade” skill), and so forth. This makes a lot more sense to me than the simplification in Oblivion as someone who typically uses a dagger should not have the same bonuses for using a claymore, and there is unquestioningly a stratification of armor that is neither light nor heavy. Although the reduction in specifications allows for broader gameplay and faster leveling in Oblivion, it’s a lot more significant when you find or purchase new equipment in Morrowind.

Although potions in either game are useful, there seems to be considerably more types of everyday beverages which have different useful effects in Morrowind. I found myself hauling around Skein, Mazte, and other such premade drinks because they really, REALLY came in handy when fighting monsters as most of these are easy to acquire in town and raise your Strength or Endurance stat tremendously. Drinking them when fighting a formidable enemy (after you exhaust your magic as it depletes your Intelligence significantly) can really turn the tide of battle, or allow you to haul out some goods that you couldn’t carry normally. Despite this, the Alchemy skill use in Morrowind is a painstaking process – but allows you to do something that Oblivion does not. In Oblivion, the process is streamlined: you pick an ingredient and then the ingredients that match effects with what you picked are the only ones you can combine to make potions. You know instantly whether something will have an effect or not and what that effect will be. However, with this system you can’t “experiment” and combine ingredients just to see what happens. In Morrowind, it is possible to create potions out of ingredients that have unknown effects. That is, if your Alchemy skill only allows you to see two of the four possible effects of an alchemical component, you can combine it with something else and generate an effect that is hidden from you. It has a sort of “wildcard” tinge to it, and thus makes the entire process incredibly laborious (particularly as there are no recipes listed in the game), but also considerably more rewarding and adventurous.

Now, Oblivion does of course have many memorable characters which Morrowind does not have. These things give Oblivion a little more flavor, which balances out the “dime a dozen” setting of Cyrodiil. A few examples:

  • Glarthir
  • The Adoring Fan
  • The Grey Fox
  • Sheogorath/The Shivering Isles DLC

I’m sure there are a lot of things I’m forgetting, but above are some of the ones that I thought of off the top of my head. I would recommend either of these two games to someone to play, but regardless of Oblivion’s improvements I still love and overall prefer Morrowind, which consistently makes all events in-game feel more noteworthy and wondrous. Depending on your play style and preferences, you may feel Oblivion (or Skyrim, but I haven’t played it yet so I can’t rightfully compare it) is better for you. Morrowind is by far the more interesting environment to me even prior to playing Skyrim. I really wish that Bethesda had NOT chosen to focus on the Nord area next as by this point I’ve seen so many Norse/barbarian-inspired things cropping up that the setting itself is already trite to me. I’d have been more interested in the Black Marshes or Elsweyr over Skyrim anyday.