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1:02 PM on 06.16.2008

Made It Through Review: FF III DS

This is my first Made It Through Review, a a new regular feature of my blog. I say "regular", but the point of this feature is to review a game I've played through entirely, so I can only post them when I've completed a game. When games first come out, they get a ton of reviews, but the people reviewing them have often only played for a short period -- this is good for some games (it hides that they eventually start to drag) and bad for others (a slow start can be lethal). I'm going to try to review the game as a whole.

Short and sweet: If you like Final Fantasy, it's a lesson in FF history that isn't cripplingly hard, but it doesn't have much story. Also, prepare to do quite a bit of leveling (it's too easy to call it a grind) or waste lots of time dying and fighting dungeons you've already gotten through.

Characters and Story (spoiler free)

Time to go adventuring.

FF III has storyline only slightly more complicated than the original Final Fantasy. Your party is rapidly gathered, a little team of four, with one barely defined personality for each: Luneth is something of a main character, a bold young man; his childhood companion Arc, the physically-weak magically-strong geek; Refia, a tough blacksmith's daughter who has a fear of frogs; and Ingus, your standard chivalrous knight-type. There is no real character development, but that has its pluses. No horrible JRPG angst! And the fun of naming characters after your friends without having them act ... well, out of character. More interesting characters join your party from time to time, so the game isn't devoid of story -- it's like having four silent protagonists and a single story-support character instead of the other way around.

The storyline is standard FF fare, but simplified. To say more would spoil, but familiar terms -- crystals, shining again, floating continents, the Ancients -- are involved.

Battles / Character Classes

I was never quite brave enough for the all-dragoon party.

Each character may have one class at a time from the 24 classes available, which defines their special abilities (thieves steal, dragoons jump, summoners summon, etc). You can change this class at any time - "big" changes require you fight a few (10 or less) battles before it takes full effect. Each character has a customized outfit for each class, which I like, and weapons likewise each have their own look. If your heart desires it, you can change classes often and make use of the strengths of each -- thieves can open locked doors, so it pays to have one character that is marginally good as a thief, for instance. But you don't have to. I'm not one for analyzing stats or grinding up character skills, so my party looked like this:

Luneth: Thief -> Monk -> Ninja
Arc: Black Mage -> Dragoon
Ingus: Warrior -> Knight -> Dark Knight -> Knight
Refia: White Mage (yep -- THE ENTIRE GAME. I didn't like the White Mage upgrade, the Devout. >:| Ugly costume.)

Whatever kind of gameplay you like in your battles, you can have it. You want basically no mana-management (that's me!)? Have a melee party. Crazy abilities? Dragoons can spend more time in the air than on the ground, Knights can do maintenance-level healing, Dark Knights can hurt enemies by hurting themselves a bit. You can pay attention to classes, or mostly ignore them, and either way will work. Both approaches require leveling your ass off.

Miserable RPG Elements, or It's Level Time

A hole? Whatever shall we do?

'Made it through' is an especially apt phrase for this game - the only variation in the "walk to point A, go through a dungeon, come back out, walk to point B" story progression is that, every so often, the game finds a reason for you to shrink yourselves with the mini spell (or tiny-izing hammer). The hidden gnome village is so tiny you have to shrink to get into it. A missing gem requires the party to shrink again to find and fight the rat that stole it. Stuck in prison, our heroes note a crack in the wall -- that's a shrinkin' too.

Otherwise you just crawl your way through dungeons, though they're usually short and pretty straightforward. The only problem I had was that the bosses were often significantly more powerful than normal enemies -- if you aren't defeating random battles by just making your party autoattack, killing them without taking damage in the first round, then you probably aren't ready for the boss.

I spent a lot of time just leveling in this game. For a normal game, console or PC, this would be intolerable to me. I hate games that make me grind. But because this game is on the DS, it gave me something to do when I only had a few minutes to kill -- I tend to hold off playing games with better plot or more hardcore gameplay until I have time and a quiet place to play, but it was easy to just turn on the DS, fight a few battles, and then turn it off again. When I play puzzle games I feel like I'm just wasting time, but leveling on the go is pleasant because it gives the sense of making some sort of progress in bite-size chunks that don't require thought.

Save Points, There Are None, or Death Is Serious Business

I could show more images of battles, but I'm sick of them. Instead, here's the lovely world map, and a pair of airships.

No save points. That's right. You can save on the world map and that's it. The dungeons (save the home stretch) are pretty short, so that's not terrible, but dying and then having to go aaaalll the way back through the dungeon -- I'm glad we don't do this so much in RPGs anymore. Yeesh.

The only time I stopped having fun with this game was during the home stretch, which looks something like this (remember that post-boss you get your HP/MP back, so the direness of a lack of resources isn't as huge as it could be):

World map (I can save/rest!)
Dungeon #1

- Small not-too-tough boss
World map (I can save but can't rest: I went "through" Dungeon #1 and now I'm on the other side)

Dungeon #2, which is a lot bigger/harder than #1
- Boss
- Boss #2
- There's actually a door here that leads to:

Optional Dungeon #3
- Miniboss
- Miniboss
- Miniboss
- Miniboss

Dungeon #4:
- Miniboss
- Miniboss
- Miniboss (I almost died here. it was horrifying)
- Miniboss
Final Boss (finally!)

Okay, see the distance between the final boss and last available save point? I hiked all the way through Dungeon 3, then warped out to save, and walked through that whole madness again. Even so, look at all that space! It took me three hours to get to the final boss, and then ... I died. I can't explain how frustrated I was. I didn't even want to play anymore -- I didn't go back and finish the game for another week.

Luneth and Doga have been shrunk (natch) and are running through the undergrowth. The Fat Chocobo is, uh, being fat.

So there you have it. I'm not going to stick a number on this game because I have no idea, in the scheme of things, what score it ought to have. I enjoyed most of my time playing it, my second hike to the last boss aside. It was entertaining if you like RPGs, and it was a nice timesink for when I was stuck somewhere and had my DS.

Games waiting on the to-beat-and-review list:
Earthbound 0, Final Fantasy VI Advance

Previously made-it-throughs:
None!   read

9:14 AM on 06.03.2008

The Games of my Ancestors

The Games of my Ancestors: What will your kid play?

Except for the staunchest non-readers, I think almost everyone living in developed nation has a favorite book. Maybe it's not really complicated, or it's far from the so-called "classics," but it seems like most adults have at least one book they plan on reading to their children (or other important young people in their lives). Some stories are just too good to keep to yourself and are worth passing on.

For little kids, I'm definitely going to crack out Where the Wild Things Are, an all-time favorite of mine. When they're older, there's The Lord of the Rings and the His Dark Materials trilogy. I don't want to force them to read anything that bores them, but I'd like to at least expose them to my favorites.

Likewise, I have some games that I really hope my kids will want to play.

One of the painfully few RPGs with a girl hero who doesn't suck. Developers, take note.

Oh, FF III (I know it's really VI, but shhh). My brother and I played this game way, way beyond the number of hours it takes to beat it. We were bad at games, then; we wandered around on the world map and enjoyed the battles. I think the story remains one the best RPG stories out there. There's a plotline for everyone: coming of age (Terra), overcoming great loss (Cyan) ... and unlike some later RPGs, it doesn't mistake "not telling you shit" for "has a mysterious/deep plot". The sprite-based graphics are still lovely and the moments that really made the game for me -- the phantom train, waiting for Shadow, taking care of Cid on the island -- are still as potent now as they were then.

One of my favorite scenes.

For all the same reasons I want to show my kids FF III, I want to show them Chrono Trigger. It's arguably a better game, the graphics are sunnier and less detailed but the character animation is phenomenal. It's beautiful, the story remains engaging, and the combat system is actually better than FF III's (or at least it is to me; random battles are annoying). The game has fantastic atmosphere, visiting each place in time was like going to a new world, and I'd like to pass that feeling on. Exploration is a big part of these games, and the variety of places you go in Chrono Trigger keeps it high on my list.

I don't feel well, I'd better call my mom and dad...

Just by it's description, the appeal of this game eludes me, to be honest. It should be dull; a modern-day kid goes on an adventure and sees/fights lots of wacky things. But it has such incredible style, and Ness, like our Silent Protagonist friend Crono, manages to make a really interesting character out of nothing. I think this is probably the first game I'd introduce just because the A Boy and his Friends go on Adventures-type story is so great when you're young. I love that you call your dad to save, and your mom when you're homesick. It made perfect sense from a kid's perspective.

Interlude: Why all the RPGs, Pixel?

As much as I love games like N+ and Team Fortress, my experiences with these games boil down to "I had lots of mindless fun". I don't mean that negatively; frisbee is mindless fun, too, and tossing a frisbee around is great. Even puzzle games, thought-intensive though they are, are "mindless" in this way. Maybe "pointless" is a better word, though it sounds negative, and I don't mean it to. I am sure my kids will find newer games that fill this role. I played the shit out of Goldeneye but it's dated, now, and kids won't have as much fun as I did playing it, not if they have access to newer games. Though I loved it, this isn't the kind of game I'm talking about passing on. What I'm interested in here is what I personally find most valuable in video games: great stories.

No text, great story: the miracle of interactivity.

Here's a good example of what I'm looking for storywise in a non-RPG. Ico has a wonderful, powerful story that kept me enthralled the entire time I played and left me wanting more. It is, in fact, one of my very favorite stories, including those I've found in books -- I never felt as attached to a character as I did The Girl (why did they call her "Yorda", ugh). And when I finally had the realization (go play the game, dummies) my jaw almost hit the floor. I think it's the best game I've ever played.


Called Out Of This World in the US (I like the 'real' title better), this is a brutally hard and yet terribly simple game with a story (and companion!) that reminds me, more than anything else, of Ico. I played it long, long before, of course, and it's quite a bit older, but the dynamic is the same. Very little text, a "buddy", a strong sense of atmosphere. This one I'm saving for older kids, though -- when I was little my brother and I couldn't get past the black monster (see above) not because it was too hard but it was so intense we got scared and had to stop. I had nightmares about that thing.

There you have it: my top five. But there are others that I know I'll want to share. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is definitely on the list. What about you guys, any games you want to pass down for posterity?   read

12:23 PM on 04.18.2008

The World Ends With You: Optimism's A Bitch Sometimes

It must seem, to people who remember the magazine days of video game news, that today's gamer is a whiny little bastard with nothing better to do than sit around and moan about things he or she ought to consider a luxury. Some say that this is just because, via the magical internet, we can now see and hear the complaints of our brethren, but no -- even when it was just clusters of schoolyard friends, the level of whining was way lower. Or so it seems to me.

Undoubtedly there are a number of factors leading to this increase in whine-age (if this phenomenon is in fact real and not a "darn ungrateful kids" response), but I think I know the main source -- optimism.

"Gasp! But Optimism is about looking on the bright side!" Well, yeah. But you know what else? It's about hope. And a game is a thing played, my friends, so we hear about all kinds of details before we can really enjoy a game. In this day and age, you don't work to find info about upcoming games, you have to work -- really hard! -- to avoid getting this information if, say, you'd rather not be spoiled.

I was very recently stung by this unfortunate optimism.

Let me admit from the start that I like Square games. I'm only a middling Square fan, though -- never played X-2, really didn't play much FFX in the first place, don't want to slobber all over Sephiroth, etc. But I like the games, and I'm playing FF III for the DS right now.

At some point I heard about a new Square game for the DS. My interest was piqued. All I heard, at first, was the title:

The World Ends with You

Maybe it's just me, but what a crazy, awesome name for a game. The "with you" at the end is weirdly cheerful. The world doesn't end because of you, or despite you -- it ends with you, like it's your dog or something. I was intrigued, but tried to stay away from more info. I like to be surprised. Or so I thought.

Alas. It turns out the game is really fun (or so everyone tells me), but the fact is that this game has a setting I just plain didn't expect and don't like -- something I hear people call "urban", as if being in a city necessitates the ridiculous clothes and the pseudo-gangsta shit that I loathe. The World Ends With You is not a strange serious-yet-not title after my heart (see: "Earthbound-esque"), like I'd hoped, it's Kingdom Hearts meets "edgy, grungy, real!" teens. I mean, look at this screenshot:

You know what I thought when I saw that? "Look, a DDR cell phone game." Darn it. I have a stupid cell phone version of Bricks that has the same setting. Lame graffiti (I know the cool stuff exists, I have seen it), too many neon colors over washed-out grungy cityscapes ...

You know what your money is called in The World Ends With You? Bling. Bling.

Before anybody gets too mad at me for being disappointed, know that I'll probably eventually try the game out. But atmosphere is really important to me, in a game -- I'm one of those people who played ICO and had no problem with wandering around in the sunlight for no reason. At the same time, I recognize that the setting isn't objectively bad -- people really liked Jet Grind Radio and these people will probably like the design of The World Ends With you. It's just that I don't like that kind of thing.

After snapping my fingers and exclaiming "Aw, rats.", I started thinking about where my disappointment really comes from, and it's not because the game isn't a game I'm going to like -- it's because I hoped that it was going to be. I see lots of games I won't like and have no problem with people playing them. But because I got these ideas of what the game might be, I got burned a bit.

No problem. This post is just a reminder, mostly to myself, that it's silly to get too worked up over having your hopes put to rest when it comes to what a game will be like. If you paid for the darned thing, well, that's a legitimate excuse. And if the developers lied, that's legitimate too. But I think a lot of times we get wrapped up in our own daydreams about what a game could be, and that just opens us up for disappointment. Not that it's bad to have hope for amazing games, it's a good thing, but when a game turns out to be different than our expectations ... well, there's no need to get really mad about it. I think The World Ends With You looks dumb, but I never got a chance to play Okami, but now that it's a Wii title I went and picked it up. What a game. :D There will always be more cool and awesome games, so it's just a matter of waiting for the next one. ... without getting too attached.   read

10:14 AM on 03.27.2008

Crystal Chronicles: In Defense of the Bucket

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is, for a Final Fantasy game, surprisingly unpopular. Not X-2 unpopular, but for a game fulfilling the dream of allowing people to play in the Final Fantasy world with their friends (I refuse to count the soul-sucking MMO) it sure doesn't get much love. The game's appealingly cute exterior gives way to a surprisingly bleak storyline that deals with the erosion of memory, so fans of adorable characters and post-apocalyptic angst can both enjoy it. And yet, having something for everyone is not enough. The game is occasionally accused of being overly simple, and of requiring too much hardware (multiplayer requires each player bring a GBA), but these tend to be minor complaints. No, the reason why the game is so maligned boils down to just one feature, bemoaned of by many:

There's a bucket, and no one wants to carry it.


See, in the quietly sad little world of FF:CC, the air is basically poison. People survive by keeping big purifying crystals in their towns, which burn away the miasma. Unfortunately, the crystals lose their power over time, so every so often a group of young warriors has to go out to make the ORBS shine again*cough*, I mean replenish the crystal's energy with myrrh. They can survive in the miasma/monster filled world because they keep a crystal shard with them that purifies the air in a small radius.

In single player, a moogle carries the bucket, and all you have to worry about is staying inside it and killing monsters. All the fun's in multiplayer, though, and there someone has to carry that bucket around. It's heavy, so that character walks slowly, and can't cast spells or attack while carrying it.

I has a bucket. Now I can't do shit!

So your friends all get together, but they want to fight fight fight, they argue over who gets the fire spell, point out who's kicking a lot of monster butt. There are delightful mini-quests that each player gets in secret at the start of every zone, so there's room for some sneakiness and trickery (rewarded with first pick of the loot). Maybe someone gets a kick out of healing other players, but mostly people want to do damage.

Not me. I want to hold that bucket.

Why? It's a different kind of game when you're holding the bucket -- you're responsible for your teammates, you have to learn how they play and where they're going to go, you have to balance getting in some action for yourself (by putting the bucket down) with the need to move because your mates need to move, or the monster leaves the area.

Because I can't do a lot of damage, I pass on most spells. The other guys can have the magic. There's only one I want, and that's the cure spell, because one doesn't need to cast it too often, and it's nonetheless a pretty important duty, leaving other players free to cause mayhem without regard for their health. I protect them on two fronts -- against the poisonous air and the monsters that attack them.

In short, I love to carry the bucket because I love to play as a support class.

Carrying a bucket that creates zones where it's safe for other players to live is a neat concept, and it fits with the game's atmosphere perfectly. As I said, the game looks very cutesy, but these people are living in a dying world where cities simply disappear. You see the ruins of towns whose crystal-bearers went out and never returned. Remembering the people you love, and taking care of them, is an important part of the storyline -- when you make your character, you are given a family that lives in your town, and these are the people you're saving when you collect myrrh. When you visit, they try to take care of you, giving you food or offering to help you however they can.

The village survives another year. Time to celebrate.

I mentioned that the game deals with the erosion of memory, and several prominent characters suffer from having lost their connection to family and friends because their memories have been stolen. Without these memories, they in turn lose their identities. Their lives as solitary people with no connection to the world are markedly bleak and even pointless. In the way Passage is about life, this game is about how the memories of others -- and a commitment to them -- define a person. There is commitment in the form of facing danger for your village, or hauling the bucket for your friends, and also a focus on trust. Your family trusts that you'll save them. Your party members trust that you'll keep them safe inside the bucket's purifying radius.

Your efforts are rewarded with the love of your little NPC family, and the happiness of your friends when you shield or heal them. Your character is defined by your memories of these people, and theirs of you. Carrying the bucket -- protecting the people you love -- embraces the very heart of the game.

I'm probably one of maybe five or six people on earth who was sad to hear Ring of Fates had no bucket to carry. I understand why (nobody liked it!), but at the same time, I think it only failed as a tool because not enough people understood and took joy from that kind of gameplay. However, games like TF2 and MMOs with healer classes, and even Mario Galaxy, are giving supportive roles positive press, so I have hope that we'll see more games like Crystal Chronicles in the future. It's a better game than people give it credit for.   read

5:42 PM on 03.17.2008

RetRose Tinted: Chip N' Dale Rescue Rangers

I've been wanting to write about this game for awhile, and the RetRose Tinted Corrective Lenses Competition gave me the impetus to do it.

My dad brought home an NES in 1987, ostensibly as a present for me and my little brother, but we were two and one respectively, so we didn't quite get into it until we were a bit older. We played Super Mario Bros., of course, but our game selection was pretty slim. Advertisement wasn't then what it is now, so our gaming library was tiny and we had no idea we were anything but the luckiest kids in the universe. In 1990 I was five years old, and one of my parents brought home what would become one of my favorite NES games of all time:

I'd seen the cartoon and was excited to recognize the characters -- the cartridge went right into the NES, and I remember the sheer delight of realizing the game was two player. Because he was only a year younger than I was, me and my brother did everything together, so to find out we could both play a game was always a great boon. We each took "our" controllers and got ready to play. Even though I was older, I always took player 2. I preferred Luigi's green to Mario's red, and my little brother, though only four, was already a total video game whiz. He couldn't read, but he could get further than my dad in Super Mario Bros. He'd earned his place.

We had Contra and loved it, but we were tiny, and it was too hard (we got better). To find a game where both players played at the same time, and yet wasn't quite as hectic as a shmup, was an unexpected joy. The graphics had surprising style (characteristic of early Disney games) and they stand up to scrutiny today. The characters are depicted as faithfully as possible in an 8-bit environment. The music, too, was catchy and recognizable. The gameplay has a pleasantly even pace, jumping is satisfying and the characters' movement is intuitive. You can't shoot anything in Rescue Rangers, but you can throw whatever you can find, and if you carry a crate pressing down lets you turtle and hide for as long as you like.

One of my favorite gaming memories is centered on the ability to lift and carry objects in the game: along with apples, you can also lift and throw another player. Against that person's will, in fact. All you have to do is sidle up to your friend and suddenly they can't do anything at all until you put them down. This makes for hilarious cruelty, of course.

But also surprising friendliness. Maybe it's because I'd only just started school and hadn't learned about jerks yet, but me and my brother played our co-operative games pretty darn co-operatively. Maybe it's because we needed each other -- he didn't read yet, so I read the text out loud for him, and in return he beat the tough levels in Super Mario Bros. for me.

Rescue Rangers, like most retro games, got hard really fast, and soon I was dying a lot. Once I got past the tower-climb in the first level, I was okay, but I didn't often make it. My very pro four-year-old brother was patient, but once I died it was obvious that I had less fun just watching him. So finally, after plummeting to my death for the umpteenth time on the first level, he turned to me and said, "Hold still, I'll carry you."

So there you have it, it's kind of sappy, but it's one of my favorite memories. Some people say that gamers are violent and anti-social, but when my little brother was playing he carried me through the hard parts so that we could both keep playing together. He didn't gripe about it, he did it because we were friends and he wanted me to be able to play, and the game had a mechanic that let a stronger player help out a weaker one. Allowing that kind of co-operation -- where one player can take responsibility -- isn't an oft-used mechanic (though it should be, and it got lots of good press when it appeared in Mario Galaxy), but it should be. This game let two kids at different skill levels have lots of fun, and at the same time demonstrate that the people griping about video games are dead wrong.

A little boy played this game, and he had the option to just torment me and throw my character into the baddies or electric wires, but instead he chose to help me every time. Playing this game with him is definitely one of my favorite memories.   read

8:30 PM on 03.08.2008

'Twas the Night Before Smash Bros.

I think this has probably been done before, but ... tough shit.

'Twas the Night Before Smash Bros.

'Twas the night before Smash Bros, and all through the night
All gamers collectively itched for a fight
Pre-order receipts were all gathered with care
In hopes that a copy for each would be there
The British wept hard, and some Yanks hung their heads
While visions of Mega Man danced in their heads
But most of the gamers were quick out the door
Elated, excited, joy literally in-store

Away to the mall we all flew in a flash
And stood long in line, one for credit or cash
When what, to my wondering eyes, finally came
But a smiling young man who was holding my game!
There's Zelda, and Bowser, Star Fox and Luigi!
There's Ness, Marth, and Sonic, there's Gannon and Yoshi!
To the front of the line, and then out with our haul
Let's dash away, dash away, dash to play Brawl!

But we shouted out loud, as we drove out of sight
Happy Brawl Day to all, and to all a good fight!

* Apologies to Clement Clarke Moore.   read

7:06 PM on 03.03.2008

I don't think you've thought your cunning plan through...

This is my first blog post, which is fitting, because it's about something you'll see a lot of from me: making big mistakes. In-game. In N+, I leap with great gusto into bombs. In Bomberman, I more than anyone else find myself trapped between a rock and my own explosives. I entertain in Smash Bros. by wandering off the edge of platforms to my doom. It's not that I'm bad at games -- I just don't think things all the way through.

Right now I'm playing Final Fantasy III for the DS, which is a 3D remake of the Japanese version that never made it to English audiences. I was looking for a DS game that had a little more substance than Yoshi Story and yet wasn't one of the Tactics games (no offense, RTS lovers, it's just that such games make me bored and mad). It's been neutered for us English speakers, so it's pretty darn easy, which is exactly how I like my RPGs. Well, it was pretty darn easy. Then I found a boss that owned me.

As with any RPG, the solution is to level. But the baddies outside of this dungeon are all easy and give piddly xp -- unfortunately, this particular dungeon begins after a spot of good old-fashioned plot, and you're locked in when you enter. But there was a handy HP/MP restoring pot right at the entry, and lots of profitable bad guys inside ... so I decided I would just level here.

Now, there are no save points in this joint, because that's not how old-school Final Fantasy rolls. So I can't save my game properly. I can use the handy Quicksave feature, though, and just level away. Great success!

... but once again my cunning plan has failed me. If I die, I won't roll back to my last quicksave -- I'll roll back to my last normal save, which was a a few hours and three levels ago. This isn't one of those games that remembers xp for you. Now, maybe I am ready to own this stupid boss, but the fact of the matter is I only have one shot. If my party dies, my leveling efforts were all for naught.

So, Dtoid people reading random c-blogs, give me some solace. Share a moment of gaming idiocy if you have the time, save another from making the same mistakes. I don't have any Dtoid friends yet (laym!), so probably this space will stay empty, but I have some leveling to do and it's god-awful boring. Maybe you will save another soul like me from self-inflicted gaming hardship.   read

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