Ruminations – Quest for Glory

questforglory_iconLately, I’ve been slowly working my way through Sierra’s old Quest for Glory series. I haven’t finished it yet, though, so I can’t really write a proper retrospective, but it’s such an interesting series that I still wanted to express my thoughts on it.

Quest for Glory is a series of five RPGs released between 1989 and 1998 for PC. Most of them are a unique hybrid of classic point-and-click adventure games and Western-style role-playing games, although the fifth game apparently strays more into action-RPG territory. They follow the adventures of a young aspiring hero (a recent graduate of the Famous Adventurer’s Correspondence SchoolTM) as he travels across the world doing good deeds to make a name for himself. While each game tells a standalone story, they link together to form an overarching narrative.

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When thinking of classic Western RPGs, names like Ultima, Wizardry and Might & Magic are likely to come to mind. The Quest for Glory games don’t have quite the same recognition as those pioneering titles. Perhaps it’s because they’re categorized more as adventure games than RPGs, but the presence of character classes, stats, and even a combat system clearly separate it from a straight adventure like King’s Quest, and place it comfortably into RPG territory.

They also don’t have quite the same scope as a game like Ultima or Might & Magic, in which each game gives you a gigantic world to explore. Rather, each game in the Quest for Glory series focuses on a smaller, more contained area, with each one based on a different real-world location and culture. This may make them seem like they’re not quite as deep, but it does make them more accessible for people who may find a game like Ultima to be a bit overwhelming. (Like me.)

questforglory2_1Gameplay-wise, Quest for Glory manages to find a balance between its adventure and RPG elements that works way better than it probably should. The puzzles often have multiple solutions depending on your character class and abilities. This makes it one of the few adventure-style games to have genuine replay value, as you can replay the game with a different character class and find new solutions to the puzzles.

Another area in which the series balances itself is its combination of dramatic storytelling with a preposterous sense of humor. The series is filled with corny puns, references, cartoony sound effects, and an occasional fourth-wall break. Each game also contains silly characters that are very obviously inspired by classic comedians, including the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy. (Quest for Glory III even has Sanford & Son.) At the same time, there’s no shortage of dramatic tension, and the games can get somewhat dark at points with some morally ambiguous situations.

questforglory3_1In a way, the contrast between those two tones somehow manages to enhance them rather than undermine them. The goofy jokes are that much funnier when they catch you off guard during a sober situation, and the lighthearted atmosphere helps the serious parts carry a little more dramatic weight. The way they play off each other could have been jarring, but they end up working together brilliantly.

Quest for Glory really has a charm all its own. It creates a fantasy world filled with mystery and wonder, as well as several memorable characters. (Not to mention some great music.) While it could be said that it helped influence some modern RPGs, there really aren’t too many games quite like Quest for Glory. Fans have largely taken it upon themselves to carry on its tradition with games like Heroine’s Quest and Quest for Infamy. (The former is available for free on Steam, while the latter is available for purchase on both Steam and GOG.) Meanwhile, the original creators of Quest for Glory, the spousal game design team of Lori Ann Cole and Cory Cole, have been working on their own spiritual successor called Hero-U.

questforglory3_2Currently, the Quest for Glory series is available as a bundle on GOG. There’s also an impressive fan remake of Quest for Glory II from AGD Interactive that can be downloaded for free. (They also created some impressive remakes of the first three King’s Quest games.)

It’s a series that’s well-worth looking into. If you’re a fan of RPGs or adventure games, I highly recommend checking them out.

More info:

Star Fox Zero: Shooting For the Stars

starfox_iconNote: this is not a review.

It may function like a review, and it may be my evaluation of the game after playing it, but it is totally not a review.

Because I suck at writing reviews.

Now that that’s out of the way, I can say that Star Fox Zero is my favorite game in the series. Granted, it’s not really replacing anything. There wasn’t really a particular Star Fox game before this that I necessarily considered my favorite. I appreciated each one for its own merits. But with Zero, everything just seems to click together for me.

starfoxzero_1As a fresh reboot of the Star Fox series, it pays great homage to Star Fox 64. It takes much of its inspiration from that N64 classic, having a similar atmosphere and plot, and even getting back most of the original voice cast. But it doesn’t really go much beyond being an homage, as most of the game is entirely new, with brand new levels and scenarios. Zero is a game that stands on its own with its own identity, and it’s nearly as much a re-imagining of Star Fox 64 as Star Fox 64 was to the original Star Fox on SNES.

One of my favorite aspects of the game is the immersive experience it provides using the Wii U’s Gamepad. It’s not just a dual-screen game, but also a dual-audio game, with all of the character chatter coming from the Gamepad speakers. I recommend playing the game with the volume cranked up on both devices. It’s a fourth-wall-breaking experience that really brings the game out of the TV and truly makes you feel like you’re surrounded by the world of Star Fox.

starfoxzero_2Of course, I can’t talk about Star Fox Zero without mentioning its most controversial aspect: the controls. Basically, it works just like Star Fox 64 with traditional controls, but on top of that, it layers on gyroscopic aiming, the cockpit view on the Gamepad screen, and the lock-on feature. It all ends up complicating things a bit more than you might expect.

All I can really tell you is that they work exactly the way they’re supposed to. (Otherwise, we wouldn’t already be seeing sick score runs on YouTube.) Whether or not you, personally, will be able to get a handle on them, I have no idea. It varies from person to person.

starfoxzero_3This is Nintendo swinging in the opposite direction of Wii Sports. With that, they made a game that anyone could play, including people who have never touched a videogame. With Star Fox Zero, they’ve created a genuine hardcore experience that even people who play games regularly may have trouble wrapping their heads around. It’s definitely not for everyone, and depending on how open you are to unique control methods, you probably already know whether or not it would be your cup of tea.

For me, though, it proudly stands among the best of Nintendo’s hardcore action productions, including Bayonetta 2, The Wonderful 101, and Sin & Punishment: Star Successor. It’s the kind of game that only gets better the more you play it, and I know I’ll be coming back to it many times in the future.

As for Star Fox Guard, I still need to spend more time with it, but that will require me to rip myself away from Zero long enough to do it, and that could take awhile.

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Looking Back at Star Fox

starfox_iconThe Star Fox series is certainly eclectic. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to do with itself. Nintendo never seemed satisfied with letting it just be the arcade rail shooter that fans prefer, and it instead used it as an outlet for experimentation and innovation with admittedly varied results. But that’s also what makes the series, as a whole, interesting.

I’ve enjoyed the Star Fox games over the years, and with one of the latest entries, Star Fox Zero, creating its own waves (both positive and negative), I felt compelled to look back at my own experiences with the series.

Star Fox (1993)

More than any other entry in the series, the original Star Fox is very much a product of its time. However, being one of the first home console games to use polygonal 3D graphics, it was also the most revolutionary.

It might be hard to tell by looking at it now, but seeing it for the first time back when it came out was mind blowing. For a console that was already faking 3D pretty well with its “Mode 7” scaling and rotation effects, the fully polygonal scrolling landscape was on another level entirely. I remember thinking how cool it was when, during the Space Armada level, you would see giant battleships in the background, fly right up to them, then inside them to destroy their cores, and back out the other side. And it all happened seamlessly.

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It’s less impressive today with its choppy frame-rate and sluggish digital controls, but some parts of it do hold up. In particular, the soundtrack by Hajime Hirasawa, with its mix of heroic John Williams-esque orchestrations and gritty guitar rock, is still my favorite in the series.

It also had a very particular atmosphere to it that’s never quite been replicated since then. Part of it was probably just the abstract nature of the graphics, but the original Star Fox felt downright bizarre at times. Things like the random geometric shapes floating through space and low-polygon count for all the character models made everything feel alien. Even now, I still don’t know what Professor Hanger is supposed to be, but I love it just because it’s so weird and random.

While it may be difficult to go back to today (both from a gameplay standpoint and because it’s never been re-released on the Virtual Console), I will always have a soft spot for the original Star Fox.

Star Fox 64 (1997)

While Star Fox 64 is objectively a better game than the original, I have to admit I’ve always had slightly mixed feelings about it. A lot of that stems from the fact that Star Fox 2 on the SNES, which I was extremely hyped for, never came out, and instead I only got a remake of the original. Not only that, but despite being a superior game, I felt that it failed to recapture the charm of its predecessor. In particular, the soundtrack by Koji Kondo and Hajime Wakai lacked the driving energy of the first.

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That’s not to say I didn’t like the game. The controls were vastly improved due to not only the game being on hardware capable of running the game smoothly and responsively, but also the availability of an analog stick. I spent quite a lot of time playing this one back in the day.

Star Fox 64‘s main innovation was the inclusion of the N64 Rumble Pak, making it one of the first home console games to provide force feedback. It also boasted fully spoken dialog, which was not uncommon at the time, but impressive for a cartridge-based game.

As a reboot, Star Fox 64 set the standard for the series going forward, and was the game all future installments would be compared to.

Star Fox Adventures (2002)

Here we have the Star Fox game that was not originally intended to be a Star Fox game. First in development as an action-adventure simply titled Dinosaur Planet, the why and how of its conversion to the Star Fox series is muddled. But as a spin-off, it still left its mark on the franchise, influencing future installments.

Rather than being a rail shooter, Adventures is a Zelda-like game with Fox running around on foot fighting enemies with a staff. It’s quite a change of pace, and some fans still look down on it as a mediocre black sheep that had no right to be a Star Fox game in the first place.

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Personally, however, I loved it. Part of that might be because it was the very first game I got for my GameCube and it has some sentimental value. But as a fan of the Zelda series, I highly enjoyed the gameplay, and I never saw a problem with a spin-off doing its own thing. In its own right, I find it to be a solid romp.

Being the final game Rare developed for Nintendo, it’s also gorgeous, with some nice fur and water effects, real-time facial animation, and an amazing soundtrack by Dave Wise.

I never quite understood why it’s so looked down upon. I think it deserves more appreciation than it gets.

Star Fox: Assault (2005)

In a way, Assault is a return to form, going back to the arcade-shooter style the series is known for, but for me, it’s kind of a mixed bag. Of the 10 stages in the game, only three have the classic rail-shooter gameplay. The rest of it is free-roaming All Range Mode dogfights, on-foot shooter sections, and Panzer Dragoon-style 360 degree shooting segments. At its best, I found it to be a fun shooter that takes the series in new directions. At worst, it’s a little dull and aimless.

There are things I like, to be sure. I like that it’s a true sequel that moves things forward, with an original story and a new enemy to fight (the Aparoids). It also has a terrific soundtrack by Yoshie Arakawa and Yoshinori Kawamoto.

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Assault is not really a bad game. I have no problem with Star Fox trying new things, and I’ve always liked the idea of Fox being on foot in a run-and-gun-style shooter. It’s just that these other styles of gameplay don’t seem to be as well done as they should be, and they clash with the parts of the game that really shine.

In the past, the game has never really held my attention for very long, but I should revisit it at some point and give it a fresh chance.

Star Fox Command (2006)

I don’t have much to say about this one because, honestly, I’ve never played it. For some reason, I was never compelled to try it, either when it was originally released for the Nintendo DS, or after last year’s appearance on the Wii U Virtual Console. I’ve been curious about it, but not quite enough to jump into the cockpit. I should get around to it at some point, though.

Star Fox Zero and Star Fox Guard (2016)

Aside from the 2011 3DS port/remake of Star Fox 64, it took a decade for the series to return with not one, but two new games. Being that they’re so new, I shouldn’t say too much about them until they’ve had a chance to sit with me for a while, but my initial reaction is extremely positive.

Both games embrace the experimental nature of the series, with Zero putting a new spin on the arcade shooter gameplay, and Guard fitting an entirely new style of gameplay into the Star Fox universe. For now, all I’ll say about Zero is that it’s easily the most intense and hardcore game in the series. (Would you expect anything less from Platinum Games?) I haven’t spent much time with Guard yet, but it’s more fun than I expected it to be.

I’ll write up a proper post for both games in the near future.

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Shenmue Musings (Shenmusings?)

ryohazuki_iconIt’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that Shenmue III is really happening. It’s not that I didn’t think it eventually would. I never wrote it off as an impossibility. I’ve been into video games long enough to know that anything with a cult following as dedicated as Shenmue‘s will eventually come back around in some way, shape or form. Maybe it’s just because it all still feels nebulous. It’s been 14 years since Shenmue II was originally released, and it’ll be another three while we wait for the next game to be developed. But at least we know it exists, and it’s coming.

But it has made me reflect on my own affection for the series. I sort of feel like I fell into it a little awkwardly. I did not buy it when it first came out, as I wasn’t sure if it would be the kind of game I would like. Frankly, it sounded a little tedious. But I eventually picked it up on a whim about a year later (and at a nice budget price), and very quickly fell in love with it.

True, it wasn’t a fast-paced action game, nor was it your traditional RPG, but I was drawn in by the detective-like intrigue: talking to people, following leads, trying to solve whatever mystery was placed in front of me. And all of it happened in an incredibly detailed, atmospheric world. In fact, I think that’s what made it work. What fun is solving a mystery if every clue and checkpoint is laid out neatly in front of you? If truth be told, Shenmue has more in common with classic adventure games than either RPGs or open-world sandbox games.

But that world, itself, was the meat of the experience. Something about simply inhabiting it is a joy in and of itself. It’s so meticulously sculpted and fully realized, it’s hard not to admire it, even if the main “interaction” is just looking at it. Shenmue really isn’t so much a game game as it is an experience.

I fell in love with Shenmue so quickly that I instantly decided I was on board for the sequel on day one. And it was scheduled to be released on the Dreamcast just about a month later! It would be the last major release for the console in North America.

But literally two days after I bought Shenmue, it was announced that the sequel was canceled on the Dreamcast so it could be an Xbox exclusive. Talk about an emotional rollercoaster. I discover this amazing game only to be immediately slapped in the face with it.

That’s all history now, but I must embarrassingly confess that, to this day, I have still never played Shenmue II. I never did own an original Xbox, I never had the opportunity to get the European Dreamcast version, and I’m not really into the whole emulation thing. So, that leaves an enormous hole in my Shenmue experience. And I call myself a fan.

But with the success of the recent Kickstarter, there’s a chance it may have turned Sega’s head just a bit. I feel more confident that the first two games could see PC ports before the release of the third. Then again, this is Sega we’re talking about, so we’ll see.

But as for the Kickstarter, itself, well, it would’ve been nice if it wasn’t necessary and Shenmue III could be an actual Sega production, but that just wasn’t going to happen. As an independent project, it at least gives full creative control to Yu Suzuki to make a game aimed at the dedicated fans. And lets face it, after a decade-and-a-half and against all odds, Shenmue III is a game that Suzuki and the fans have willed into existence. Let’s not take this for granted.

Not to mention, Yu Suzuki, like Koji Igarashi, is a game creator whom I want to see continue making games, always. Whether it be with official sequels, spiritual successors, or completely original projects, I couldn’t be happier to see these guys back in action.

Shenmue III is a true Hail Mary pass. The final play. If Shenmue III doesn’t succeed, there will absolutely not be a Shenmue IV (or V), and the series will forever remain unfinished. But I would like to think that in the last 14 years, Shenmue has found its audience. It may not necessarily be a mainstream audience, but it’ll be reliable. And if we can get this far, the sky’s the limit. Let’s enjoy this Shenmue Renaissance (Shenaissance?) while we can.

Ruminations – My Chrono Trigger Memories

Icon - CronoThis year marks the 20th anniversary of Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger, widely regarded as one of the best Japanese RPGs of the 16-bit generation, if not of all time. Developed by a “dream team” pairing of Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy) and Yuji Horii (Dragon Quest), it broke the mold of RPG game design of the time.

Strangely enough, my memories of Chrono Trigger are less about the game, itself, and more about the experience of actually buying it, but it is one of my fonder gaming memories. I remember the previews of it in Nintendo Power magazine hyping it up as “a gem — polished, brilliant and beautifully presented,” and that “it belongs in every game library.” But I needed little convincing as I had already been thoroughly blown away by “Final Fantasy III” (aka Final Fantasy VI), and I was ready for another game of that caliber.

Unfortunately, I didn’t live in an area where it was easy to buy video games, and this was before you could just hop on the internet and have games sent to you. Rather, I had to wait until we took a trip to a neighboring town where I could buy games at a department store or a Toys R Us. It was excruciating to read about games in Nintendo Power, and then never be sure if I’d ever be able to actually find them. Still, I suppose there was a certain “thrill of the chase” back then.

Screenshot - Chrono Trigger

It must have been shortly after the game had been released when it so happened that my mother planned on taking my brother to see Cats (the musical) in a neighboring city. She asked if I would be interested in seeing it too, and I figured why not. At the very least, I’d be able to swing by Toys R Us and get a chance at finding Chrono Trigger.

And that’s exactly what happened. I remember being in Toys R Us, looking over their wall of laminated placards, hoping to see the box art for Chrono Trigger. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, back in the ’90s, the video game section of Toys R Us was essentially a bunch of plastic cards with box art on them hanging on the wall. If you wanted to buy the game, there were these little pouches filled with tickets beneath the cards, and you would take a ticket to the cash register, pay for the game, and then go to a little cage in the corner of the store where a guy would give you the actual game. It sounds a little convoluted to describe it, but believe me, it was awesome, and I think stores should go back to selling video games this way. It sure beats the hell out of rummaging through a GameStop.

Anyway, I looked over the wall of placards, and… I didn’t see Chrono Trigger. Disappointing, to be sure, but there were never guarantees. But maybe I just looked too fast the first time. So I took a second, more careful look, and there it was! Somehow, the muted tones of the box art didn’t quite stand out among the other more colorful box arts around it. I was ecstatic as I grabbed the ticket, literally jumping for joy and exclaiming “YES!” in a fairly loud voice. Another kid down the aisle gave me kind of a strange look, but I didn’t care. I got my prize!

Box art - Chrono Trigger

The only problem: this was before we went to see Cats. That meant I had to sit through a two-and-a-half hour musical, knowing that Chrono Trigger was waiting out in the car. Strangely, I didn’t actually mind that much. I think I was just happy that I actually got the game. Plus, how often did I get to see a stage play? It made for an exciting day all around. After all, I’m still remembering it fondly 20 years later.

The game, itself, did not disappoint. Admittedly, I never quite grew to love it as much as Final Fantasy VI, but I still played the heck out of it.

On a side note, it’s kind of interesting that the collaboration between the creators of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest happened before the Squaresoft/Enix merger, and nothing like that ever happened after.

Anyway, maybe it’s not really that much of a story, but it’s what comes to mind when I think of the game. Twenty years later, that’s my Chrono Trigger memory. My…

Memory
All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days
I was…
Oh, sorry! 😉


EDIT: I originally had written that it was the game’s 25th anniversary, but it’s only the 20th. I guess I really haven’t been thinking clearly lately. Post has been corrected.