(So, this is my first blog, please be gentle with me, but thanks in advance for giving me a shot anyways)
If there’s one conceit I allow myself these days, it’s to refer to myself as an RPG Expert. For roughly my entire gaming life (a smidge over 20 years) I’ve pretty much played RPG’s—Console RPG’s for the most part, as in my younger days, computer RPG’s really didn’t appeal to me much.
Yet, for the first half of those 20 years, there was a surprisingly small spectrum of that genre that I played—for the most part, Squaresoft games and the Breath of Fire series were the only RPG’s I’d really indulge in along with an odd foray into playing something else. Essentially, if it had Squaresoft on the box, I was almost guaranteed to play it, and it was something awesome (unlike these days).
However, one day in 1999, I was looking up some information on one of the games I’d just gotten for my SNES after a few months of searching when I discovered a neat-sounding little game I’d only heard of the sequel for over here in the states. Thus, my path to RPG Expertise began.
Star Ocean has since been released for the PSP, but at the time I found it, it could only be had as a translated ROM. When I first played it, I was totally blown away by so many things I loved about the game. While not being maybe the best game (SNES FF 3 still has that honor) or my favorite (Breath of Fire 2 is still my primary nostalgic memory from those days), it was probably the most fun game I’d ever played up until that point, and probably still the most fun SNES game for me, for a number of reasons.
While the gameplay essentially boils down to a simple mashing of buttons (later games improved this greatly), the battle system was unlike any I’d played before. While I still love turn-based games, the action-ish element to SO was incredibly interesting to me, and definitely kept things interesting throughout the game. Simplistic, yet engrossing, it could be as simple or as complex as you wanted it to be with the combo options available to your character (and unless you obsessively power-leveled, you needed those options). Not only the battle portion of the gameplay, but the item creation system was a sight to behold, possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever seen originally stuffed into an SNES cartridge. Individualized crafting, talents, and actual useful things you could make (I’m looking at you Tales of Phantasia) made this something I literally spent hours trying to utilize to enhance my characters. I know my experience with PC games is pretty shallow, but honestly, this was amazing at a time where no games to my knowledge had a crafting system like this in place—again, totally optional. You could ignore your skills and Item Creation as much as you liked, or make your characters City-Cracking Demigods by halfway through the game.
The atmosphere was also one of the things that totally drew me in, mostly due to the uniqueness of the concepts presented. SciFi was only lightly used for RPG’s back in that day, and Phantasy Star was the only other game that remotely attempted a full-blown SciFi setting if I remember correctly (Secret of Evermore might fit the bill too, I suppose). So, when you get an even slightly Fantasy/SciFi hybrid into the hands of a teenager raised on Star Wars and Fantasy novels, I’m pretty much drawn in. The score still has some of my favorite videogame music ever, and fits so incredibly well with the setting and events at hand, I was a bit disappointed they didn’t use more of it in SO4 when they revisited that part of the Universe. Seriously, some of the music almost makes it worthwhile just to play a bit of SO just to experience the soundtrack. Also, this was the first time I’d ever heard Voice Acting in a cartridge game---which was generally awesome. While it was all in-battle and in Japanese, it was still amazing to me that someone could stuff even this much more stuff in an SNES Cartridge—not to mention I could just pretend the Japanese was magic moons peak that sounded like spell casting from a fantasy novel.
Story-wise, SO probably isn’t much in the way of inventive. I personally still like the story, as it’s well-told, and along with the well-developed setting, does a pretty competent job tying everything together. No Deus Ex Machina for the most part, and not too much shark-jumping are major bonuses. What really made me love the game most were the characters that made it up—11 playable characters, only 8 of which can be gotten during a playthrough, and many of them very missable. Granted, a few characters get little to no character development (Tinek comes to mind quickly here), but if you don’t just blow through the game at warp speed, and do some of the games Private Actions, I think more than a handful of characters endear themselves to you a bit (Ashlay was a personal favorite here—I was totally pissed the first time I played through and missed him completely). Just taking your time to immerse yourself a bit in Roak never seemed much like a chore to me, and playing through a few times just to see what each character would play like in battle was more than satisfying for me. Another thing I’d never seen before were the vast number of endings to this game. Yes I know Chrono Trigger and Ogre Battle also have a number of different endings, but SO had endings based on how well you got along with your party members, which was kind of awesome. I never got the uber-cool ending with the tree thing at the end, but it just seemed so much more organic than CT’s system for endings, and there was no way I was going to slug through Ogre Battle multiple times. While the endings generally weren’t mind-blowingly awesome, they were pretty neat, and the system to get them was pretty nifty.
As if I hadn’t said this enough, STAR OCEAN WAS ON A CARTRIDGE. Let that sink in for a bit. Frigging amazing.
As you can see, I could give you a dissertation on SO (and the other 3 games in the series as well), and for good reason. As far as unreleased games went, this was pretty much the most amazing thing I had ever seen, and still is great fun for me to play. After playing this game to death, I began branching out and looking at other games I may have missed out on while having Squaresofts love child. I revisited Dragon Quest extensively, found Grandia (although I wish I never would’ve set eyes on 3) and discovered a mound of hidden gems waiting for me through the next 10 or so years that made the journey all worthwhile—and some steaming piles I should’ve turned and ran from the moment I saw them (There’s a reason they never released FF5 in the US…). Now, years later, I’m generally known as the RPG guru among my comrades, and justly so, doling out gaming advice like I was getting paid for it. Most of the advice of an actually helpful nature, no less.
Star Ocean : It Changed my Frigging Life read