Saturday, 27 August 2011

Those are a few my favourite things...

Much assorted finery...reads like a who's who of 90's gaming
I've been playing video games for many years now (since about 1986 in fact) and consequently, having played literally hundreds of fine titles, I tend to shy away from trying to decide which are my 10 absolute favourites. Never the less, it is something that I've been mulling over for a while now and it's probably time I had a go at it. By the by, this is not my take on the 10 greatest games ever...I'm not that brave.

One thing that really strikes me when I look at this list, is that for all I bang on about loving obscure Japanese games, pretty much every title below is a mainstream AAA effort. Which I guess goes to show that when it comes down to it, big studio know how really does rule the roost.

Anyways, here goes...
  1. Street Fighter II Turbo
    Without a shadow of a doubt my favourite game of all time, and one which I've spent a disgraceful amount of my life playing. Graphically amazing, and surely the most balanced and playable game from all of time, SFII Turbo is still the greatest fighting game to grace any system, and will probably always remain so. Glorious SNES home conversion is just edged out by the arcade perfect PSX version (from Capcom Generations 5) in the console world. As close to gaming Nirvana as I've ever perfection from Capcom.
  2. Terranigma
    My blog entry for this game probably conveys best how I feel about it, but to my eyes this is by far the greatest RPG on the SNES, and therefore the greatest greatest RPG ever. Majestic in just about every way, and vastly superior even to many games from subsequent generations, it pushed the SNES to it's limits and rewarded players with an epic and harrowing tale, the likes of which is all too rarely seen. Lack of US release means it remains an underground classic and is ruinously expensive.
  3.  Super Mario 64
    In the world of video games, the word 'revolutionary' is often incorrectly banded about, however in this case it certainly couldn't be more apt. As well as selling bucket loads of N64 consoles, Mario 64 totally redefined the way we looked at gaming and dragged every developer into a glorious new age. This game kicked started gaming in the third dimension and brought it to the masses, and amazingly to this day, has still to be bettered (even by Nintendo themselves). Quite probably the greatest game of all time.
  4. Super Mario World
    One of two games at the centre of an age old Nintendo debate: Mario World or Mario 3? For me there is only ever going to be one winner here...the faultless Super Mario World, the greatest 2D platformer of all time. Launched alongside the Super Nintendo, Mario World showcased Shigeru Miyamoto at his insurmountable best, and is probably still to this day, the most playable game I've ever experienced.
  5. Final Fantasy VII
    An absolute benchmark in the RPG genre, the importance of this game simply cannot be understated. When Square finally deemed the world ready to experience it's flagship series, it was for many in the west, a first glimpse of just how special a mere role playing game could be. Released during what were without doubt, Square's golden years, it boasted unparalleled CG sequences, unforgettable characters, and a story that made grown men cry. Although it is far from perfect and has developed an unhealthy fan boy base, you simply can't ignore this behemoth and for me it remains far and away the most memorable title on the Playstation.
  6. Final Fantasy VI
    The undisputed (in my eyes) king of the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy VI completely rewrote the RPG rule book when it came along back in 1994, and will live forever in my memory for being pretty much perfect in every way. A ridiculously in-depth story, backed up by the most memorable cast ever seen in a video game was coupled with jaw dropping visuals and a soundtrack that embarrassed some Hollywood movies. All this made Square's masterpiece the jewel in the Super Nintendo's crown. Criminally, it was never released in Europe until it's little brother became popular, but Final Fantasy VI is now beginning to gleam the worldwide recognition it so richly deserves. 
  7. Tekken II
    The King of the Iron Fist for me, is also the King of 3D fighting games. Tekken II simply blew me away, with it's beautiful high res graphics, super tight controls and a moves bible longer than your arm. It could be picked up in an afternoon but would take a lifetime to me, this was another title that I spent a disproportionate part of my life hammering away at. It also happened to boast one of the most characterful rosters of any fighting game and to this day, it is still the only fighting game that can give Street Fighter II Turbo a run for it's money.
  8. Shenmue
    Another title that I've previously waffled on about, Shenmue represents everything that is magnificent about gaming in my book. It's massively intricate, stupidly detailed and unfathomably gorgeous in every way. It truly is a rare gem thanks to it's unrestrained beauty, and so, makes me feel a lil bit sad, because in today's cut throat world of throw away gaming...there's little chance we'll ever see it's series finale. Still, let's rejoice at the fact that it even exists in the first place. There's no disguising it's obvious flaws, but they can't come close to spoiling what is a true work of art.
  9. Goldeneye 007
    Perhaps a left field choice given my quite vocal disdain for the FPS genre and the fact that it isn't Japanese. But with Goldeneye, Rare somehow managed to capture the very essence of what makes gaming fantastic and sprinkle it over an entire N64 cartridge. Perhaps the fact that it took me completely by surprise has helped into this list as did the fact that Goldeneye is one of the finest multi player games of all time. Technically awe inspiring, it proved that FPS games could work on a home console, and so to any console FPS zealot who's reading this, you have Goldeneye to thank for the fact that FPS games are the force they are today.
  10. Championship Manager 97/98
    Another British entry (gasp!), and it's quite hard to sum up how I feel about this is so addicting that it should probably have been banned. The chance to take the reins at your boyhood club, and steer them to world domination is one that's too good to refuse. In terms of hours ploughed into a game, this comes second only to SFII Turbo. My favourite thing about "Champ Man" though was the chance to get Robbie Fowler a (much deserved) Premier League winners medal.
So there we have it. Looking back over this list I have to admit to being fairly pleased with my selections, all are without doubt totally brilliant in some way. I'm also quite proud of how varied the list is, and that it's not totally dominated by the SNES (much to my surprise). 

Honourable mentions go out to: Super Mario Kart (SNES), Super Metroid (SNES), Earthbound (SNES), Secret of Mana (SNES) and Suikoden II (PSX). Any of these five could easily have made it onto the list and on another day...they probably will.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Gaming's great intros part II: Secret of Mana

Anyone who is fan of the RPG genre will doubtless have heard of the Mana Series, and anyone who is a fan of Secret of Mana will no doubt remember the first time they fired this game up and witnessed Hiroki Kikuta's orchestral masterpiece.

From the second you hear the haunting cry of the wolves, you know you're in for a real treat, and this feeling is only amplified when the screen finally stretches fully open and you are treated to the sight of the Mana Tree in all her crowning glory. As the epic story scrolls on by, the glorious musical score (performed by actual instruments - then a first on the SNES) weaves a tale all of it's own and shows how Square were quite simply on a different plane to everyone else. When the music finally reaches it's angelic crescendo, accompanied by a  flock of birds flying across the screen, you get the feeling that what you've just seen is beyond epic.

The most amazing thing about Secret of Mana (or Seiken Densetsu II to coin it's proper name) is that as good as the intro sequence is, the game is even better. Released in the UK way back in 1994, Mana went a long way to satisfying a rabid hunger that had grown within British gamers. With competition being thin on the ground, and coming mainly in the shape of the vastly underrated Soul Blazer and the near perfect Zelda III, Square aimed for the top with their long awaited ARPG and achieved it with consummate ease. Boasting a story that would put most traditional RPGs to shame, an ingenious battle system and the ability to have two friends join you for the ride, Mana literally wiped the floor with anything that came sniffing for it's crown.

Visually and sonically stunning in every way, Mana showed it's true class by remaining one of the greatest games on the SNES for the entire life span of the little 16bit wonder, and indeed it was only usurped as the little grey box's finest ARPG by the eventual release of Enix's majestic Terranigma in late 1996.

Perhaps the greatest testament that I can pay this incredible piece of cinema though, is that even by today's standards, it still looks and sounds genuinely inspired. And while Hiroki Kikuta may have never topped his work on Secret of Mana, he can rest assured that there is a place in the history books reserved for him and his piece of audio perfection.

A more in depth look at Square's finest action adventure game (to be released in the west anyways) is on it's way, but for yourself to a look at one of the finest pieces of video game cinema ever conceived.

Lennus: The little RPG that (almost) could

Blue trees, pink buildings and a guy called Chezni...small wonder it bombed in the US
Time now to dive into the surreal (and very pastel) world of Lennus, a much maligned and in my opinion, misunderstood RPG for the SNES. Published by Enix in the US inexplicably as 'Paladin's Quest’ (there are no mention of Paladins at any point in the game), Asmik's Lennus is at first glance your bog standard Dragon Quest and Phantasy Star imitation. However, as is sometimes the case, if you delve a little deeper and look past the obvious flaws, you'll find a sweet little game just waiting to be loved.

Anybody who has read my homage to Super Play will know that when I was a youngster, I generally only bought games that received favourable reviews in the magazine. However, there was something about Lennus that that interested me from the first time I saw it way back in 1994, and even though it received just a meagre 62% in it's review, it charmed it's way into my head, and there it stayed for almost 17 years.

This year I finally got round to giving Lennus a long awaited play this point I should clarify that I'm going to carry on calling the game by it's original title, not the meaningless name of 'Paladin's Quest' that Enix fobbed it off with.

To this day, I still find it strange that Enix decided to bring Lennus to America as one of it's first SNES titles. I can see why they were drawn to the game, because it is possibly the closest thing the SNES had to Sega's Phantasy Star, but given the relative lack of interest in RPGs at the time in the west and the game's decidedly strange 8bit graphics, it seems like an ill conceived decision, and ultimately was. Lennus was pretty much dismissed out of hand by magazines and gamers alike, the result of this complete lack of interest from the American press and public, extinguished any slim hopes the game had of making it to shores of Blighty (just for a change).

And that’s something of a shame because Lennus is a curiously unique little thing that actually has a lot going for it.

The story, though in no way revolutionary is full of quality touches and despite being held back by the translation from Japanese to English, it certainly has a unique style that can get very dark at times. There are overtures of love, loss, insanity and more than a smattering of racial prejudice and contempt...and of course, there's the maniacal dictator trying to take over the world (obviously). Large portions of the plot are left open to interpretation, although I suspect this may have been unintentional.

The plot centres around 13 year old Chezni; the game's main protagonist (thankfully you can change his name) who is a student at the famous Magic School of Naskuot, and who also happens to be unusually adept at controlling Spirits (casting magic). After caving into some peer pressure at the school, Chezni enters the forbidden Tower of Ganbid and subsequently activates Dal Gren; an ancient machine with awesome destructive true RPG style, the tower was neither locked nor guarded! This results in mass chaos for most of the world, and forces Chezni to set out on a mission to correct this (pretty almighty) gaffe. Along the way he meets Midia, a young girl who has an unspoken bond with our hero, and together they must discover their lineage of the heroes of lore; Kormu and Sophie and rescue the world from impending darkness.

The world of Lennus is made up of a vast ocean and a land mass that is split into two continents by a large equatorial river. The story begins on the northern continent of Naskuot, which is your (almost) typical fertile and hospitable RPG country, complete with beautiful (albeit blue) forests, fields and mountains. As well as being home to the grand Magic School, Naskout also boasts the resplendent city of Juryan and the Skuruu camp (literally a village in the sky).

Saskuot on the other hand is (predictably) a harsh and barren land, full of jagged mountains and snow covered tundra. It is also under the rule of the megalomaniac Zaygos, who's seems intent either on ruling or destroying the world, naturally this has made it's inhabitants pretty hostile toward anyone from the north.

The two continents are linked (as are some of the major towns) by the sprawling Rope Network System. This is a neat way to get about the world of Lennus, and is basically a large cable car that connects the (very) spaced out populace of both continents. It can be somewhat of a godsend when you're fed up of walking long distances with nothing but innumerable random battles for company.

Visually Lennus really is out there on it's own. At first glance, it looks a bit like a NES game on steroids, but when you step out into the world, you get a taste of what the designers were going for. Apparently the graphics are inspired by a famous Japanese artist, I've no idea how accurately they represent his style but I like them a lot. Everything looks very alien and otherworldly, right down to the mountains and trees, and even the buildings seem organic if they were grown rather than built. What stands out most to me though is the near total absence of primary colours. Just about everything in the game has a pastel colour to it, there are liberal uses of cyan, pink and purple and this just adds to that bizarre feel.

The inhabitants in the world of Lennus also benefit from this crazy graphical direction, and there are a myriad of bizarre species to interact with, each with it's own colourful and unique make up .

This appearance really appeals to me and even though the visuals do look a tad basic, you can tell that the developers at least tried to do something different, and shy away from the usual rolling green hills and grey castles found in most other RPGs of the period. Lennus genuinely does look unlike anything I've ever seen on the SNES.

For me, music is where Lennus excels most and is what really makes it stand out from it's contemporaries. This is no doubt thanks celebrated composer Kōhei Tanaka (of Patlabor, Gunbuster and Alundra fame) who created a soundtrack that has real class to it. While you do have to put up with some of the obligatory RPG fodder, most of the tracks (although short) are atmospheric and convey a wide range of emotion. It's best offerings are easily amongst the best I've heard on the SNES (high praise indeed), with the soothing town theme and the hauntingly beautiful Godom Lullaby being the pick of the bunch.

Gameplay in Lennus will be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever played a console RPG, but there are some quite intriguing twists to help set it apart from it's then rivals; titles such as Magic Knight Rayearth (in Japan) and Mystic Quest (in the US).

Whilst wandering the world map or a dungeon, enemies are encountered at random; the battles are fought in the traditional turn based manner and viewed in the first person (ala Dragon Quest). The system itself does take some getting used to, the commands are laid out in such a way that each button (or direction on the d-pad) corresponds to an action, and it can be operated using one hand (perfect for the lazier gamer!). I read many complaints about how this system is cumbersome and hard to navigate, but to be honest I found it quite intuitive and refreshing. Either way, after a short while (unless you're retarded) you’ll find yourself flying through it with relative ease.

For the majority of the game you will only have two permanent members in your party out of four available slots, the remaining slots can be if you so choose, filled by mercenaries. These characters can be hired from almost every town in the game (usually in the local taverns), the majority will demand hard cash for use of their services, but there are a few that will ask to join your party for more personal reasons (revenge, repaying a debt etc). The mercs, while controllable, come pre-equipped with spells and weapons etc, that cannot be altered, this therefore adds an extra dimension to the way you play through the game. Do you take a chance and spend the money to hire help, or struggle through with Chezni and Midia and gain more experience in the long run?

Another oddity which really adds to your tactical planning in battle is a total lack of magic points (MP) within the game. Whenever a character casts a spell, they do so by using their own life force, therefore reducing their hit points (HP). This also means there is no generic healing magic to call upon (although there is one spell to heal the entire the cost of the caster's life). Healing is achieved through the use of bottles which can be found throughout the quest and filled up (with a healing potion of sorts) in shops throughout the land. Though bottles vary in size, getting larger as the game wares on, they are only good for 9 uses each, it sounds pretty basic, but it makes you think twice about steaming into a new area without first checking things out and getting prepared.

Perhaps predictably, magic is not learned in the traditional manner. The characters gain Spirits (a bit like Secret of Mana) and by combining two of the eight available, the player can cast a variety of spells. There is no leveling up the spells as such, instead the character gains more of an affinity with a certain Spirit the more it is used.

It is worth baring in mind that Lennus is one of those RPGs in the traditional Japanese style...there are parts where levelling up relentlessly is essential in order to progress through some sections. While I don't mind this, I can understand how for some, it's like having teeth pulled out.

Despite all the things Lennus does well, there is no disguising the fact that this game has some biblical flaws, and in the cold light of day, it isn’t hard to see why the general reception in the west was so poor.

For it's American début Lennus was given to Enix for translation, and unfortunately (and unusually for Enix) it seems that the translators either really disliked the game or had all been replaced by brain damaged apes, because the translation is nothing short of abysmal.

It appears to me, (but I could be wrong) the English characters used in the translation were too wide for the original text boxes and, as a result anything classed as a name gets restricted to just six characters! Rather than correcting this within the game's code, it seems Enix just decided to abbreviate…everything. This is actually worse than it sounds because it has a catastrophic effect on not only the story but also (more crucially) items and spells, which are a massive part of this game. The result is that the names of the majority of spells and items are completely unfathomable unless you refer to a walk through or go with trial and error. I found this to be an unbelievable ball ache, and I was playing on an emulator with save states…so I can only imagine how much rage this would have caused back in the day when you got killed in battle because you ended up casting twelve incorrect spells.

As mentioned, whoever translated Lennus seemed to do their best to ruin it and it definitely shows in some of the game's dialogue. It often sounds like conversations are deliberately rushed or drastically shortened. Other than being generally annoying, the worst part of this awful "localisation" effort is that it butchers the can almost see a brilliant little tale trying to force it's way out from behind the mediocre and sluggish sentences. I know RPG's were (and probably still are to an extent) a niche genre back then but that's no excuse from a company who's 'bread and butter' was in RPG gaming.

My other big complaint concerns the character development (or lack thereof). Other than Chezni, Midia and Zaygos there isn't really anyone else in the game who gets a decent amount of back story and padding out. For me, they missed a trick here because it would not only have expanded on the game's potentially decent plot but also added a few hours extra to the play through time (which is less than stellar). RPGs are about stories and their characters, a chance to get closer to some of the game's more interesting denizens would only have been a positive in my book.

Having said all that, I feel a genuine affection for Lennus; it's an honest little game that tried hard to break away from the generic RPG formula, but retain that familiar feel. It leaves you with a warm glow inside when you play it and a tinge of sadness when you finish it...a sure sign of a good game in my book. And the fact that is a good game, in my opinion makes it even more of a shame that it got sold short, if Enix had only bothered to spend more than half a day on the translation, then it would have easily enjoyed success Stateside and possibly (eventually) made it’s way over here. It would never have troubled the RPG cognoscenti, but it was more than capable of rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lufia and Mystic Quest...and that would have been more than welcome here in the UK.

Probably the biggest tragedy borne out of Lennus’ failure though is that if the game had made an impact on its release stateside, then we may well have seen it's awesome sequel (imaginatively titled Lennus II) released in an official capacity in the west too. Luckily, there is a solution on this front though; Lennus II is available to play in English thanks those ROM hacking heroes over at Dynamic Designs. I for one still hold a faint hope that one day; they will step in and give the original game the proper translation it has always deserved.

Although Asmik were never renowned for wowing the world with their SNES offerings, in Lennus they really did produce a little gem. Sure, it’s rough around the edges and the visuals don’t do much to push the system, but I think it has more than enough in it’s locker to stand out in the vast crowd of SNES RPGs. Anyone who considers themselves a pointy hat fan or has a soft spot for the traditional console RPG really should give it a whirl. It will never reach the bar set by the Chrono Triggers of this world, but it will provide a good 20 odd hours of solid gaming enjoyment.

Can't really argue with that can you?

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Super Play...'superest' of them all

Genesis...only without the annoying Phil Colins...or Jesus
There are a great many things in life that help shape who we are as people. Pretty much day in, day out we all encounter situations, make decisions and meet people that influence and change us in some small and subtle way...truth is though, it’s rare that we even notice it happening. But, every so often something appears right out of left-field, and has such a profound effect on us that it fundamentally alters who we are and it’s repercussions can be everlasting (I know this is getting a bit far out here but bare with me). These experiences can range from the grandiose, to the small and seemingly insignificant.

This brings me to one of the more "seemingly insignificant" experiences that came crashing into my life; it was a  magazine…a magazine called Super Play. To say it changed my life is honestly no understatement, and it's something I still hold in almost holy regard to this day. It's thanks to Super Play that I discovered a love for Japan, it's thanks to Super Play that I fell in love with the RPG genre and it's thanks to Super Play that I sampled some of the finest games to ever grace the SNES. I now intend to cast a wistful (and no doubt rose tinted) look back at what made this publication so great, and why I loved it so dearly.

Super Play was a monthly Super Nintendo magazine that ran for 47 issues, spanning November 1992 to September 1996. Throughout it's (almost) four year run, the magazine received virtually constant critical acclaim from readers and industry bods alike, and consistently outsold all other single format SNES magazines. Although it was probably most famous for extensive coverage and championing of RPGs, anime and generally all things Japanese, anyone who was a regular reader could've told you that was just the surface of this uniquely wonderful magazine.

My love affair with Super Play began (later than I would've liked) on a balmy Saturday in May 1993. When aged just 12 fledgling years and drunk with affection for my beloved SNES, I found myself perusing the magazines in my local newsagents. Unsurprisingly it was full of the usual (and frankly dull) suspects; Total, Games Master, NMS etc, but then, amidst this sea of mediocrity I caught my first glimpse of Wil Overton's glorious anime art work sitting atop issue 8 of Super Play (pictured), and from that epiphanous moment, even at such a young age, I could tell that my outlook on gaming would never be the same again.

Now, for me, trying to explain exactly why Super Play was so fantastic is a bit like trying to explain why your favourite colour is red, or why you love your wife...but here goes.

I'll start with what everyone already knew, and what was undoubtedly my favourite aspect of Super Play; the of unashamed love of the RPG. It's no secret that the staff at who worked at the magazine had more than a soft spot for this genre, and to me this was so alluring because at the time (in the UK at any rate) the RPG was something of an unloved and untapped niche on the SNES. I would often gaze in wide wide eyed wonderment at the 'Fantasy Quest' section of the magazine, drooling over the gorgeous looking and exotic sounding Japanese RPGs that we were never going to see here in the UK. It was never a surprise to see two or three pages devoted to the newest Square masterpiece or extensive information on the latest RPG sweeping Japan. Quite how they managed this in those days before the web was fully matured is still something that astonishes me.

Right up there with a love for the RPG was a burning passion for anime (which in Japan, is intrinsically linked with gaming), and this passion was something else that I connected with instantly. Growing up watching nothing but cartoons (live action never really did it for me), it was almost a revelation to discover a world where animation didn't have to be cutesy and American. I found myself quickly immersed in the world of Manga Entertainment et al and was simply blown away, and it was thanks to Super Play's Anime World that I was introduced to the likes Venus Wars, Area 88 and Akira to mention but a small few.

Encompassing this love for both RPGs and anime was a generic affection for all things Japanese, it's almost embarrassing (from an education point of view at any rate) to say that  I learned more about this magnificent country from this one magazine than anywhere else when I was a kid!! To this day it remains that place in the world I'd love to visit most. To dedicate a whole section every month specifically to what was going on there was ballsy but ultimately inspired. The only downside of this was knowing I'd never even see let alone own half the stuff on display!!

I also discovered that my enjoyment of music from the games I played did not actually make me a strange cat, as I once feared...I would sit for hours sometimes just playing the music in the option modes! Reading Super Play showed me the scale of the popularity of the video game music scene and eventually opened my eyes to some of the greatest tunes gaming had to offer. These days, amazing tracks like Bordering another World (Chrono Cross), Green Continent Campbell (Bahamut Lagoon) and Smiles and Tears (Earthbound) are regulars on my iPod, whilst composers such as Yuzo Koshiro, Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu rival some of my established heroes like Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller and Simon Fowler. You'd have never gotten that in an issue of Super Action let me tell you.

Aside from these unique qualities, probably the most significant factor that elevated Super Play way above it's peers was the fact that the writing staff really did know what they were on about. The magazine was renowned for being tough when handing out scores, so you knew that if a game was awarded 80% or above, it was genuinely worth buying. Unlike some of the lesser magazines around at the time, you would never find a real turd of a game receiving a score of 90%, and then, on the next page, find a competition giving away 10 free copies (like a certain NMS did with THQ's very average Olympic Summer Games). This was especially helpful given that in the mid 90's, the average SNES title cost an eye watering £50...big money when you're a mere school kid. Nintendo's policy of pricing meant that I personally would get no more than four or five games per they had to be stormers, and if I'd ended up with Home Alone or Pit Fighter, I'd have been suicidal.

Being an impressionable youth, I count myself lucky to have been able to call on the guidance of such wise old heads, and their willingness to rate every title on it's merits (rather than hype) meant that I was able to also sample some of the lesser known gems on the SNES. Titles such as SimCity, Smash Tennis and Soul Blazer may not have grabbed the headlines like Mortal Kombat and Mario did, but they were certainly not lacking in quality.

At a time when most British magazines were obsessed only with what was happening in over here, and their idea of an import review was trying a Madden game from the US, Super Play ploughed a lone (and brilliant furrow), and pursued a uniquely eastern flavour. Right down to the outstanding anime inspired covers, drawn by artist Wil Overton. And you would never see a potential gem dismissed out of hand, just because it was "too Japanese". Too often were these games ridiculed and more often than not just ignored by other magazines.

Many established magazines in the UK would dismiss the likes of FEDA: Emblem of Justice as “ just another wacky game from those crazy Japs…it's written in some foreign text, so we’ll mark it down" or (more often) "not bother with it at all”. Super Play's fondness for games that were, back then classed as obscure and gimmicky, often led to the magazine being unfairly dubbed the “RPG” or “anime” magazine. But Super Play sought (and fought actually) to address and solve the problem with the very perception of Japanese games in the west.

Indeed where it not for Super Play, I sincerely doubt that I, and thousands of other gamers would ever have heard of the likes of Ogre Battle, Front Mission and Xandra's Big Adventure, and there's a good chance that (in my life anyways) the sterling work of fan translation groups would have gone unnoticed and AAA titles such as Bahamut Lagoon, Lennus 2 and Seiken Densetsu 3 would've just completely passed me by.

There was also a  refreshing lack of the almost juvenile behaviour you would often witness in other video game magazines of the period. Never would you have to put up with cringeworthy quotes such as "this game is so awesome, go and buy that sucka" etc, or reel at the use of swear words to cover up a pitiful grasp of how to write in basic English. Super Play was written properly, and was probably the only magazine around back then that engaged it's readership as adults and more impressively as equals (actually, there was also Edge, but their tone was often a bit too austere for me). Super Play had that very rare gift of employing passionate gamers who could actually write too. Proper facts and well placed humour don't sound like they would be hard to achieve, but in the 90's, a lot of writers seemed not to know this.

There's no doubting that the very feel of Super Play must be credited to the magnificent staff that worked there, and it was very rare to find such an array of talented, dedicated and genuinely funny people working so well together. But the likes of Jonathan Davies with his dry and witty writing style, Jason Brookes with his frankly amazing knowledge of all things SNES, Zy Nicholson with his affinity for all things RPG...and sweet Lisa Nicholls for...the obvious, made the magazine an unbridled joy to read. Reams of credit must also go out to Matt Bielby though, for possessing a vision that was this revolutionary, and for having the skill to execute it.

The word unique is often (wrongly) banded about in all walks of life, but with Super Play it honestly was apt. I mean, what other magazine would devote whole sections of their monthly print to the latest anime news and life in Tokyo...not to mention an entire (and outrageous) section of the magazine just to cover Final Fantasy VI?! You could almost hear the NMS and Total readers asking "what's Final Fantasy again?"

Looking back through my old collection, it's clear to see just how quickly Super Play infiltrated my life. A large majority of the Japanese games featured in those early issues have stars marked in pen next to them, denoting I'm sure, a desire to play them all at some point. I've still got some to get through, but I'm getting there!

And so it's a crying shame that we eventually arrive at the age old adage that 'all good things must come to an end'. Although at the time, Super Play's rather abrupt demise hit me like a freight train, looking back through those last few issues, it's easier to see (perhaps with older eyes) that the end was nigh. Even I, the most staunch supporter of the SNES was looking forward to the upcoming N64, and newsworthy SNES stories (for the UK especially) were becoming increasingly thin on the ground. Even so, I can still remember the moment when I arrived at the end of issue 47 and read the obituary to this institution which had been my rock in the gaming world...the news shocked me almost to tears.

Whilst certain aspects of Super Play did live on into the next generation as part of it's unofficial successor; N64 magazine, and although that was a fine publication it's own right, it never quite caught the imagination in the way that Super Play did.

I think Super Play's legacy to the world is that it's relentless optimism and influence are still being felt from beyond the grave to this very day. The decision by some of the world's biggest software houses to (finally) start releasing proper flagship RPG titles in the Europe was in some way down to the constant exposure UK gamers were given by Super Play. It's doubtful we'd have seen the releases of Final Fantasy VII, Suikoden and Wild Arms if wasn't for Super Play and it’s readership.

It's a testament to the endearing quality of Super Play that to this day, I still own (and regularly read) my collection, and even more so that it still gives me inspiration to play new games. This year alone after reading Super Play, I've blasted through Tactics Ogre, Mystic Ark and Front Mission Gun Hazard!! On a joyous note, I also recently completed the Super Play set (after 'just' 18 years). A purchase of the fabled Super Play Gold from eBay set me back a cool £20...which is a tad expensive for what is essentially a 'best of', but then that's the price we pay for love I suppose.

Summing up then, I guess that my undying love for this magazine is deep rooted in the fact that it broadened my horizons in such a way that I discovered wondrous new worlds, and that it steered me onto the righteous path of gaming, ensuring I would never be one of the idiots who would rush out to buy the latest big movie tie-in or new FIFA game. Although it doesn't come close to repaying what Super Play gave me...I offer my humble thanks.

So when it comes to Super Play I'm unashamedly a fan boy, preacher and possibly even a zealot...but you know what? I'm all the better for it. It's certainly true when I say that in gaming terms at least, I am who I am today because of this magazine. I will never forget the tingling of anticipation I would get every month, walking to the newsagent, hoping to see the shiny new issue waiting for me. And perhaps in today's world of the digital press, where news is reported almost as quickly as it is broken, it sounds strange to claim that a product of the now dying world of printed media actually changed my life...but there you have it.

RIP Super Play, the world is definitely a duller place without you.
スーパー プレー

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Creation of Heaven and Earth

...yours is the Earth, and everything that's in it
Anyone who is or ever has been serious about gaming will tell you that whilst there have been many fine titles knocking about through the years, every now and again, one comes along that is different...and it grabs you in such a way that it never lets go and you never forget it.

In my life, there have probably been five such gems:
  •  Street Fighter II Turbo
  •  Final Fantasy VI
  •  Super Mario 64
  •  Final Fantasy VII
And this one...Terranigma.

For many people, this game may be a touch obscure so let me lay some background down.

Terranigma (or Tenchi SoZo: The Creation of Heaven and Earth, in it's native Japan) is an action RPG for the Super Nintendo. Released in the UK in December 1996, it was the last Enix game to be developed by the mighty Quintet studio (of ActRaiser fame); it was also far and away the greatest. In fact, my adoration for this game is such, that for me it's not only the greatest RPG on the SNES (sorry Square), it's also the greatest RPG there has ever been. I will now try to quantify this seemingly outrageous statement...

A brief warning though, the following text will discuss the game's plot and be potentially ruinous for anyone yet to play through it. It will also probably get a bit mushy...but what can you do?

Ok, the formula for a successful role playing game is not a difficult one: charismatic lead character(s), involving story, interesting none player characters (NPCs), memorable music and many hours of game play...that's it, it doesn't even need to have particularly brilliant graphics (though obviously, it's beneficial). Think of Earthbound as the perfect example of this.

Action RPGs (or ARPGs) are even easier to strike gold with, because unlike their turn based, menu driven brethren, they don't even need to rely on burdensome and complex storylines, a fine example of this being the timeless Legend of Zelda III.

So, not too difficult then. Never the less, the ARPG genre has still managed to inflict upon us some of the most humdrum tripe in video game history. The likes of Lagoon, Lord of the Rings (every version of it) and The Warriors of Might and Magic are all timely reminders of just how wrong things can go if the formula is not adhered to.

Luckily, during the development of Terranigma, there was no chance Quintet and Enix would dare drop the ball.

This was due (in no small part) to the fact that Terranigma was the final instalment in the much celebrated 'Soul Blazer Trilogy', succeeding Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia. Whilst these three games are not directly linked to one another, it is evident that they share a common bloodline and heritage. As with both Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia, the mantra adopted during the development of Terranigma was unique, the intricately woven story just as integral as the epic action, and in true Quintet style, both come together seamlessly to produce stunning results. The plot has such depth and intensity in fact that it comfortably surpassed many offerings from the established 'proper' RPG series, such as Capcom's Breath of Fire, Sega's Phantasy Star and even Square's Romancing Saga.

By the time Terranigma was released, the hallowed SNES was nearing the end of it's life span, and in order to give the trilogy the send off it deserved, the proverbial boat was pushed out...far. Boasting a 32mb cart (surpassed in size only by Namco's Tales of Phantasia), Terranigma pushed the system to it's limits, demonstrating just what that little grey box could do in the hands of genuine miracle workers. Showcasing some of the most impressive visuals and music the 16bit era had ever produced, Terranigma also managed to put many PSX, Saturn and indeed N64 games to shame.

Onto the game itself then, and sometimes it's clear within 30 seconds or so of just turning a game on that it's going to be a bit special...Terranigma certainly belongs in this category.

The introduction sequence tells of a foreboding tale, about how the two opposing wills of the planet (light and dark) were locked in a raging and never ending battle, and how they were eventually to become known as 'god' and 'devil'. And although, the will of the lightside enabled the evolution of life and rapid technological progress, the will of the darkside bred constant disharmony and fear. This cycle of rise and decline continued until the culmination of the age old battle, which subsequently wiped out all life on the surface and even sunk the continents. These scenes, accompanied by a glorious musical score, give the player a brief glimpse into the colossal tale that is about to begin.

Our epic saga actually begins, strangely enough, on the inside of the planet (and actually in a fairly standard way), in a small village called Crysta. You take control of Ark, an adolescent boy with a penchant for mischief (albeit the lovable kind). He sports the obligatory RPG spiky hair and outlandish threads and spends his days idly causing trouble for the village’s inhabitants. I must mention at this point that Crysta has, without doubt the most wonderful theme music of any RPG village...honestly, go have a listen. Anyways, Ark's mischief making and curiosity eventually leads him to open the village's archetypal forbidden door, freeing a strange pink blob like creature (called Yomi) and mysteriously freezing the entire population with the exception of Ark and the village Elder...Pandora's box is now open.

What happens from this point on propels Terranigma onto a level that most game designers don’t even know's honestly that good.

Armed with nothing more than a spear and a magic box, Ark must leave his home and embark on an epic quest that will not only restore life to his friends but eventually to whole world.

After moseying about the underworld for a bit (which has one of the most epic map themes ever by the way), Ark then journeys to the surface to begin the daunting task of resurrecting all life on earth.

It's worth me mentioning at this point, that Terranigma never received a release in North America. I think the official reason given was that Enix had shut it's offices there in 1995 due to dwindling sales and so there was no one to publish it...however, when it came to Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Nintendo actually published the game themselves. This brings us to the real reason for a lack of US release: the content of the story. Terranigma's plot covers issues such as religion, reincarnation and the resurrection of life, gods and demons. As we all know, this kind of subject matter never goes down well in the US, hence Nintendo's understandable reluctance to publish it in the territory.

Now far be it from me to preach to anyone about what they should believe in, but I find it a genuine travesty that so many gamers will have missed out this masterpiece, and mostly because of a stubborn and unwavering belief in something as archaic and broken as Christianity. Rant over.

Moving on...

When you arrive at the surface you're greeted by a barren, red wasteland (think Mars from Total Recall), and the scale of the task in hand is revealed. After resurrecting the Ra tree (the giver of life to plants, trees and all things horticultural), the world is once again carpeted in the glorious green of life (at this point it also gains what is the most epic of map themes), and it really exemplifies the contrast between the surface and the underworld...the lush greenery and vibrant life is certainly a far cry from the frozen tundra and rivers of magma that surround Crysta.

You then proceed with the resurrection of birds and animals, and Ark has the really neat ability to speak with all living creatures (even down to the plants!), along the way this capacity sparks some genuinely amazing scenes. For instance, because there are no humans about yet, Ark must make use of the birds to get from continent to continent. This means we are treated to a wonderfully sweeping mode 7 map complete with Ark being carried half way around the world by a seagull! You must also accompany the future king of beasts (Leim the Lion) while he attempts to pass a trial that will prove he is worthy of his soon to be inherited mantle...small touches like this actually make you care about the NPCs that you encounter during the game, and what happens to them later on.

The resurrection of humans is next on the agenda, and this is where the story really opens up. You have the ability to (literally) shape the course of human evolution...a bit like a god, no? Travelling around the world (to real countries and continents no less), and nudging the humans in the right direction by assisting the greatest minds and personalities (such as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henri Matisse and Sven Hedin), Ark's mission is to push the fledgling human society to achieve further growth and prosperity.

Once humanity is back on the map, there are so many ingenious ways to interact with it's populace and help them to progress the civilisation. Check out this unique little list for starters:
  • You can actually vote in the Loire elections, voting for the right candidate means the city will prosper, leading it grow and expand
  • Help to build a bridge across the Colorado River, thus encouraging foreign trade in America
  • Get directly involved in the development of ground breaking technologies such as the camera, the telephone and the aeroplane! 
  • Actually buy your own home...and furnish it (my personal favourite)
Obviously as the human race progresses, the effect it has on the world around it is profound (just as in reality), and this is shown in the game's strong sense of conscience. For example, if you assist the town of Sun Coast with it's quest for expansion and thus greater tourism, you will then find then find a zoo that has become home to all the wild animals that you once befriended (including a certain king of beasts). Because the growth of the city and the thirst for greater exposure has taken the animals' natural habitats away from them, they are now forced to live in captivity...a young child even remarks that they look "sad" (heartbreaking I know). You actually have to weigh up the consequences your actions will cause, do you aid human evolution (benefiting you also, in terms of supplies etc) and help them to achieve their goals, or do you ensure the freedom of the creatures that you once called friends and comrades? This plethora of moral decisions made Terranigma truly revolutionary amongst it's peers.

After all this has taken place, there are then some fairly shocking events and revelations which edge the world back toward disaster once again. The true identity of both Ark and the evil that threatens the earth once again is revealed...but I won't spoil that for anyone. It's something that has to be experienced first hand.

The issues raised and discussed in Terranigma always fascinated me, and are made all the more impressive when you consider that Final Fantasy VI, Square's 1994 flagship SNES title (from a series known for it's unrivalled story lines) was lauded at the time of it's release for broaching subject matter such as (amongst others) teenage pregnancy, genocide and slavery. If we take a look at some of the topics covered in Terranigma, a 'mere' ARPG, we find: life and death, ecology, love, grief, betrayal, politics, economics, sacrifice, religion, rebirth and insanity. To me, this was truly staggering, and the emotions that such content can produce are frankly remarkable, especially when you consider that it was all done back in 1995.

This kind of thinking was actually a common theme amongst Quintet/Enix offerings at the time (though usually to a lesser extent), and the often harrowing scenes depicting the eternal struggle between the light and the dark, won both companies an army of die-hard fans along the way. In fact it is a point of view not disimilar to that found in many films by Studio Ghibli, insofact that the characters are never just black and white (take note Disney). The protagonist will often also harbour a darker side to them and vice-versa for the antagonist, this is an attempt at paralleling real life, and one which struck a cord with many gamers.

I genuinely struggle to translate my love for this game into mere words, there are so many parts of it that leave me completely speechless. From the vibrancy of Evergreen with it's enchanting soundtrack (a place that I tend to stay in for hours) to that final day in Crysta, which has to be the most bitter-sweet moment in gaming that I can think of...with what is by far the sweetest music of the entire game (if not of any SNES RPG). I defy any gamer to play Terranigma and not be at least slightly moved by it's emotional majesty.

The afore mentioned final day in Crysta is one of those rare moments in gaming that you simply do not want to end. And for me it is up there with the death of Aerith (Final Fantasy VII) and the resurrection of  Gremio (Suikoden) as one of gaming's biggest 'lump in the throat' moments.

Because I don't wish to totally ruin the ending, I'll just say that the credits sequence beautifully caps off this momentous quest, and it is tinged with a sadness that you only get when you know you're at the end of a very special journey. What happens after the credits finish rolling is very much open to interpretation, but I know what I think...

And so, even after all this written meandering, I've only barely scratched the surface of what Terranigma really is...and it must surely go down as one of the greatest RPGs of all time. The biggest tragedy when I look back is that it was never experienced by more...but then I guess that makes the lucky ones (me included) even luckier.

Given it's lack of release Stateside, and that it performed poorly in the rest of the English speaking world, Terranigma is now considered to be very rare. I've seen complete examples push £150 on auction sites, so it is a pricey investment...however, once again, I implore those who can to go and get a copy. For everyone who can't drop that kind of money, I would advise turning to the emulation community for help, it may be a more nefarious way of experiencing this game, but trust me, it'll be totally worth it. It is no understatement to say that this game did for the action RPG what Final Fantasy VI and VII did for the traditional RPG...and you can't say fairer than that.

Good luck with the resurrection of the world.

Friday, 5 August 2011

So, what's the deal with 'Squenix'?

A marriage made in heaven? Only for the shareholders...and possibly those emo types

Ok, so this one is a bit of a rant.

During what I would consider to be gaming's 'golden age' (the 90's), there were many developers and publishers I greatly admired. The likes of Capcom, Konami, Namco and Rare etc, all treated the world to some pretty mind blowing titles. However, being a big RPG fan, there were two companies in particular that I held in the highest of regards: Square and Enix.

Purveyors of the two biggest RPG franchises in Japan (Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest), these two behemoths of the role-playing scene could seemingly do very little wrong. Indeed a brief foray into the back catalogues of both is like pouring over a who’s who of the iconic Japanese RPG, and a list that includes the likes of Chrono Trigger, Valkyrie Profile, Illusion of Gaia, Xenogears, Secret of Mana, Ogre Battle and Bahamut a stark reminder of just how good things were.

A healthy rivalry between the two houses kept fans delirious, and the games fresh and innovative. Even differing approaches to developing games, fielded similarly dazzling results. Whereas Square would develop the majority of their titles in house, Enix would work closely with outsourced developers; these included the likes of Chun Soft (Dragon Quest), tri-Ace (Star Ocean) and, the mighty Quintet (Terranigma, ActRaiser, Soul Blazer). And even though their titles were often vastly different in execution, they were united by the fact they were usually of a very high quality.

As the 90's wore on, Square's determination to crack the US and European mainstream became more apparent. They eventually achieved this in 1997 with the resplendent landmark that was Final Fantasy VII; this was then followed up by an aggressive campaign, which saw the release of probably the biggest and finest batch of translated RPGs western gamers had ever seen (Square's 'Summer of Adventure' from 2000 for example).

The news was not however, all good, the culmination of this campaign was 2001's commercially suicidal 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within' CG movie (which I actually quite liked to be honest). The film cost a 'Shenmue-esque' amount of money to create and bombed horrifically. This mistake put a not insignificant dent in Square’s coffers, and put their film making exploits on a hiatus, until the release of 2005’s ‘Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children’.

Square’s blueprint was in complete contrast to Enix, who had employed a more 'Japan-centric' strategy throughout the 90's (and had actually decided to shut their North American offices between 1995 and 1999). However, big delays in 1999's flagship title; Dragon Quest VII meant the company's finances took a heavy beating, this, coupled with the purchase of Game Arts (of Grandia fame) also left Enix in pretty bad nick fiscally.

All this economic uncertainty eventually led to rumblings that a merger between the two companies could be on the cards. These rumblings eventually turned to roars and on 1st April 2003, the two companies did merge to form Square-Enix...which I have lovingly dubbed 'Squenix' (cute I know). Apparently this deal had been mooted since early 2001, seems abundantly clear to me though that it was mutual monetary woes that really forced them into bed together.

Being honest, this day should have been one of the greatest in the history of video gaming, and I for one was overjoyed at the time. Convinced that we would see some of the most monumental cross overs of talent since the immortalised Chrono Trigger 'Dream Team of Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball animator), Hinoboru Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy creator), Yuji Hori (Dragon Quest creator) and Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger soundtrack), I awaited the oncoming storm of brilliance with baited breath. It never really appeared though...

In the years that Square Enix has existed as a sole entity, they have undoubtedly released some great games on a variety of platforms, but for me it just seems like most of the magic has disappeared (especially in the past 3 years or so). In the home console market, the company appears to have become little more than a glorified publisher of mediocre offerings, aimed at a very Americanised market ('Nier' I’m looking at you). My other (and perhaps more serious) bone of contention is the business strategy that Squenix refers to as ‘polymorphic content’. This is explained (by them) as “getting all the juice possible from a jackpot”. I prefer to call it 'cash cowing', and it's a practice that pleases me not. I mean, just how many Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest remakes and add-ons can they actually throw at us?!

Having said all that, Squenix has still released some fantastic games, and the handheld world in particular has benefited immensely from this.

We saw a wonderful remake of Seiken Densetsu (aka Holy Sword Legend, aka Final Fantasy Adventure) called Sword of Mana on the Gameboy Advance. A gorgeous graphic and musical overhaul combined with some much-needed padding for the story really helped to bring this title alive. It was a wonderful reminder of just how great this terribly underrated little gem was (and still is).

The sublime 'The World Ends With You', which gives a modern day take on the action RPG genre, took everyone by surprise. With visuals supposedly inspired by the youth culture of Shibuya, it had the potential to be one of those cringe worthy attempts at making a game ‘trendy’. As it turned out, it was pretty refreshing, well executed and a genuine break from the castles, inns and mountains we often see in RPGs. It was also fitted the DS youth demographic perfectly and probably helped to introduce a whole raft of new gamers to the RPG genre.

Let us also not forget, the ever-graceful Final Fantasy Tactics series, which seems to have now found a perfect home, away from the glare of the brutally fought pixel power wars (PS3, Xbox 360). The series is now revelling in the cosseting RPG laden communities of the DS and PSP formats. It remains in my eyes, one of the few bright stars in the modern day Final Fantasy universe, with fantastic characters, story and battle system very rarely bettered (though much borrowed).

Straddling both the home and handheld console markets is Kingdom Hearts, a series that looked like nothing more than a cynical (albeit pretty) Disney tie in, has actually turned out to be rather special. It has that warmth to it that you don’t often experience these days, but will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has played earlier Square titles such as Legend of Mana or Dewprism. Imaginative use of well-known characters from both studios’ vaults makes it instantly appealing to younger players, but it also has an underlying challenge to it that will keep veteran gamers entertained in equal measure.

We then arrive at what was probably the finest title ever to grace the PS2…Dragon Quest VIII (Journey of the Cursed King); this glorious game somehow managed to capture everything that is or ever was good about Squenix. It boasted sumptuously cel-shaded visuals that surpassed even the likes of the gorgeous Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and, (dare I say it) the pioneering Jet Set Radio. It was easily one of the finest looking games of the entire 128-bit generation. Brilliant voice acting (for a change), fantastic story and 80 plus hours worth of game play make this one of the all time great RPG experiences…if you can, go and buy it immediately (seriously, it’s only about £10 these days)!!

Honourable mentions also go out to Dragon Quest IX (DS), Radiata Stories (PS2), Star Ocean: The Last Hope (PS3 and 360) and a brilliant (though slightly cynical) re-release of Chrono Trigger on the DS.

Once again though, I unfortunately find myself drawn to what are numerous and momentous disappointments and letdowns.

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles…oh dear, a game that showed so much potential, and even the possibility of (finally) replacing the legendary Secret of Mana (in terms of being multi player action RPG at least). It actually ended up being nothing more than a cynical ploy from Squenix by attempting to appease Gamecube owners for the lack of a 'real' Final Fantasy title on the machine (PS2 owners were treated to Final Fantasy X). I can even imagine the board room discussions going on at the company at the time; "How can we extort some money out of those childish Nintendo owners? I know, a slow, sluggish and not very fun multi-player game will be just what they're waiting for" (well, kind of like that only more, you know, Japanese). This game even reached new levels of not being fun by requiring one member of your party to permanently carry an urn which was essential to your staying alive...seriously.

The shafting of Nintendo owners continued with Squenix publishing the unbelievably bad Major Minor's Majestic March. Now, for those (fortunate ones) who've not heard of this, it's a musical rhythm game from the creators of PaRappa the Rapper...sounds fine so far no? Well, as with many Wii games (this isn't just Squenix to be fair) it wasn't finished properly and as a result, the controls just don't work that well. Sure, it looks nice, and fans of PaRappa may actually be lured in...but honestly, you'd have more fun giving the money away instead.

This stream of awfulness doesn't just extend to Nintendo's fans, oh no, feast your eyes on this slew of mediocrity:
  • Quantum of Solace (PS3, 360)
  • The Last Remnant (360)
  • Gyromancer (360, PC)
  • Supreme Commander 2 (PC, 360)
  • Just Cause 2 (PS3, 360)
  • Mindjack (PS3, 360)
Now I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but if you contrast that little list with the likes of Chrono Cross, Front Mission, Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story and Mystic doesn't really stack up too well.

There also seems to have been an inexplicable shying away from really well received and much loved franchises in recent years. Still no new Chrono game, no continuation of Xenogears (I know Xenosaga is a spiritual successor but it's not a direct follow up), no real successor to Seiken Densetsu 3 and, come to think of it, still no (official) English translation. You'd have thought that whilst pillaging the back catalogue, they'd have found time to sort this one out.

Then we have the rather depressing (in my eyes at least) acquisition of Eidos. Now I do understand that for a company to be truly multinational and have global appeal, it needs to cater to all audiences...but I'm sorry, Eidos were never more than pushers of over hyped and underwhelming (Championship Manager apart) titles in the first place. Little has changed since they became part of the Squenix family either and at the risk of sounding like a bit of a zealot here, I've no interest in seeing the company plough money (and lots of it) into the likes of Tomb Raider and Deus EX.

And finally, onto the one that hurts the most...just what has happened to the once glorious and infallible Final Fantasy series?

Ignoring the multitude of spin-offs and remakes, the series that is beloved by probably anyone who has ever enjoyed a console RPG has been going down hill since it’s 10th (X) instalment ended. In my opinion, the trouble started with the quite greedy release of Final Fantasy X-II. A direct sequel to a Final Fantasy game is something we hadn't seen before and it seems to have been what kicked off this idea of 'polymorphic-cash cowing-robbery' that has since plagued the series.

We were then treated to instalment MMORPG (which should be depressing enough), this never really worked on anything other than a PC, so that's a good way to treat loyal console fans. In fact, in Britain, I don't think there was even a network to play the PS2 version on, great stuff.

That entry was kind of a blueprint for XII, which did have a lot going for it, but it felt strangely like a PC game to me that had been dumbed down for console use. For all it’s glamour, the game left me feeling cold and uninterested. Unusual aspects such as not being able to talk to all the NPC's added to this cold feeling too, as did the updated battle system, which again felt like something lifted from a real time PC game (I realise that one does make me sound like I'm actually tied to the 90's).

This brings us neatly on to XIII, which I'm actually slightly embarrassed to say I've never even played, such has been my recent apathy for the series. Even a glowing recommendation from one of my great friends who is an RPG and Final Fantasy connoisseur couldn't help muster any enthusiasm for it's overly emo (seriously, those haircuts annoy me), and just plain moody lead characters. As it's now standard practice, this game is also due to spawn a sequel which, will no doubt be full of funky haired but very emotionally retarded teenagers who can't decide whether love is more important saving the world.

Strangely though, that little tirade isn't what annoys me most about the Final Fantasy series these days, it's this remake-itis that seems have gripped the whole of Square Enix. They're at it with most of the big franchises, Dragon Quest, Star Ocean, SaGa, but with Final Fantasy, they've taken it to another level. What's properly baffling to me though is that they've stopped at number 5 (V). Now, I'm sure Squenix will have some elaborate excuse ready as to why this is the case but lets be honest about this, the real and only reason why VI and VII haven’t yet been remade is because the company is scared…scared of messing them up.

When it comes to Final Fantasy VI and VII, we're talking about the two most revered games in Square's history, adored by millions, and immortalised by critics worldwide. It doesn't take a genius to imagine the uproar it would cause if they got these two wrong...we'd probably be talking about some sort of insurrection at Squenix HQ in Shibuya. It's not good enough though, they need to grow some balls, don't remake Romancing SaGa 3 on the DS, in fact, don't even make Final Fantasy XIV, just plough that money made from woeful American games into remaking VI and VII. And if they can't muster that, then at least VII should be given a proper translation (long overdue as it is).

Overall, I can't help but feel sad when I think of Square Enix these days, and bitter at the fact that it makes me feel sad.

Maybe I'm being too harsh on them though, because the cold fact is that these are troubling times for Japanese video game companies on the world wide stage. Nintendo no longer commands the respect of the third parties that it once did, and Sega has dropped out the home console market completely (and will probably never get back in). In addition to this, recent years have seen a huge shift in the power base from Japan to America. We now have a western population that is much happier shelling out it’s hard earned on the likes of Halo, Call of Duty and FIFA rather than Mario and Sonic et al. Realism and (more specifically) war are now the order of the day, and these two styles of video game are not something that Japanese producers are historically good at or interested in. The likes of Dragon Quest, King of Fighters and Ridge Racer will always do well in Japan, but perhaps no longer on western shores.

That said, I’d be much happier having a Squenix that was worth a lot less in yen and was producing games of real quality than one that rakes it in from peddling shite...alas, this romantic notion will never catch on I fear.

So, please forgive me if these are the ramblings of a grumpy old man, unhappily pining for things to be the way they once were (indeed, maybe it is). It does though seem certain to me, that there has been a considerable change in the landscape at Square Enix. Originality, boldness and creativity have given way to greed, monotony, caution and perhaps desperation. It is blindingly clear in my eyes that this marriage is one of convenience rather than love...and in these eyes that is what’s known as a sham.

If only I'd been present when they asked "if anyone objects to this union, let him speak now"...