Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The JRPG and Me

I've described before how I grew up listening to movie scores.  When I was in high school, I went on a tear of renting the movies whose themes I had loved, figuring that I should start getting some context.  And so it came to pass that I learned although The Abyss did not live up to its musical promise in my eyes, The Terminator certainly did.  (I was and remain undecided on Willow.)

The last decade has brought me more into the gaming sphere.  Although I've been an avid computer gamer since 1986, the only console I ever had was a used NES I bought in 1993.  Sony and I were like two ships in the night for a very, very long time.

But in 2008, my now-husband got a PS3 (the Metal Gear Solid 4 bundle) for his birthday.  And although my entire games collection was stolen in 2006, he -- also an avid collector -- managed to avoid a similar misfortune.  And so, for the last three years, I've been catching up on a number of classic games and series I missed in the 1990s.  Thanks to a PSX emulator, M's PS1 discs, and a classic theme that's always drawn me in, I... am playing Chrono Cross.

I'm this guy now.
It's amazing how slow and clumsy I feel, attempting this feat.  Everyone else played games like this when they were twelve, and part of me wishes I had, too.  Like learning a second or third language, I seem to have reached the age where these skills are harder won than they should be -- even with my guide at hand.

The first JRPGs I ever successfully played to completion and enjoyed were The World Ends With You and Chrono Trigger, both on the Nintendo DS.  The former is DS native; the latter, obviously, a remastered re-release.  The fact of the matter is, I rarely enjoy Japanese or Japanese-style RPGs.  I don't tend to like controlling a party and the slow-paced, half-mystical, often incoherent lyricism of the writing often grates on my fast-paced American sensibilities. 

But then there's this.

And in fact, the first place I ever really heard the music was at Video Games Live, in 2009.

Frankly, that theme is too good to keep passing up, especially as my husband's original PS1 discs are running very smoothly in my gaming rig.

So that's where I am: wandering around outside of a village, using a skill / spell system that everyone on Earth understands intuitively but I have to struggle with, accompanied by a pink dog with a lisp.

I might hate that dog a little.  But right now its my only friend in a hostile world, and that's how bonds are formed...

I wasn't expecting to like Chrono Trigger either, when I first started it.  I had to be wheedled into giving it a try.  And I didn't like the world or the characters or the navigation, and then suddenly I did, and I was traveling through TIME YOU GUYS OMG TIME TRAVEL LOOK AN APOCALYPSE and the next thing I knew the number of hours I'd put into playing it had passed my ability to track.

So I'm giving Chrono Cross its due.  There are huge swaths of gaming history I missed along the way to where I am now, and I need to make good on my quest to understand how the history of our art led to its present day, and leads to its future.

"Attack" I can handle.

Sometimes I remember that watching silent film didn't come naturally to a child of the 1980s, either, but that I adored The General when I finally saw it.  So this, too, is a language I can learn... one turn at a time.



    I love Chrono Trigger and Chrono Chross.  And Final Fantasy (especially FF6).  The music is a big part of why I enjoy it.  This makes me want to dig up my soundtracks.

  2. Chrono Cross is not actually using a common system. In fact, it's very uncommon. Most JRPG systems, like the bronze age CRPGs they were inspired by (Wizardry, Ultima) encourage hoarding of powerful resources (whether items, spells/mana points, or what not). That superbad end-boss gets a lot easier if you keep your hand off the spellbook and the "heal the entire party" items so you have as many of your best tools to hand when you finally meet it. In Chrono Cross, using spells whenever you can is rewarded because everything (except expendables) is refreshed. It took me awhile to get a handle on it, because I've been playing JRPGs since we got a free copy of Dragon Warrior with a Nintendo Power subscription back in ye olden days.

    I much prefer it to Chrono Trigger as well, which I liked well enough, but I never really understood the obsession people have with it. It may be because I was never able to play it (because it was so hard to find) until well past the time that other games had done the same kinds of things. I know it's probably heresy, but there it is. The World Ends With You, though, that's a game I can seriously get behind. Never played another game like it before or since. Fan-freaking-tastic.

    If you want a suggested path for easing yourself into the classics, I can easily suggest some further great ones, especially since you have a PS3 (though I don't know how well the software back compat is for PS2 games).

  3. Because you are a music person, I'd strongly recommend Final Fantasy 6 (or 3 if you go by the US version).  That and Chrono Trigger had probably the best music on the SNES, and I think that having (relatively) complicated and interesting music elevated otherwise banal plots and dialogue into (relatively) complicated and interesting plots and dialogue.

  4. I will say, for all that I've never successfully played a Final Fantasy game (I started FF7 many years ago, didn't get into it at the time), I do appreciate the music.  Terra's theme from FF6 was part of our wedding. ;)

  5. Haha, I used to watch that whole opening movie every time I started up the game because I loved the music so much.  Winson's right, the battle system is quite unusual. I was pretty hamhanded with it starting out as well, even after all the hours I put into SNES JRPGs.  I guess my problem was that I was trying to play it like a Final Fantasy battle system, which is as bad as not knowing what to do at all.

    Once you get the hang of it, though, it gives the battles a terrific rhythm. Forcing you to just bash at the enemy for a few turns before you can drop a big skill is part of that. So is the element field, which forces you to think a couple turns ahead sometimes. It results in tension building up and releasing during the battle, so that each fight has more of an arc to it.  Traditional JRPG battles in the Final Fantasy style can feel pretty flat. Just a slog through the "big spell, heal, big spell, heal, restore magicka, repeat" pattern. Chrono Cross really put a lot of thought into fixing that.

  6. I've played several PS2 games on the PS3, and I've had hardly any problems. The only issue is that shutting down the system from the PS button menu sometimes doesn't work after I've been playing a PS2 game, so I have to shut the system down manually.  Weird, but more of an inconvenience than anything. No compatibility problems so far.

  7. It depends on which version of the PS3 you have.  The originals had hardware & software backwards compatibility but basically each successive release of the console is less able to run PS2 software than the one before it is.

    However, we have a fully backwards compatible model.  Mr. "I have a big collection of games from forever" insisted on it. ;)

  8. Yep, same here. :)  I was under the impression that subsequent models didn't have backwards compatibility at all: that they just stopped playing PS2 discs altogether.  Still playing them, while gradually letting the support die out, is a pretty dick move.

  9. FF7 was the game I bought my original Playstation for (which I still have in a box somewhere). The remake they are doing for the PS3 will probably be the thing that gets me to buy one of those.

  10. Is there any kind of reliable guide as to which versions have what level of PS2 compatibility? I'm leery of spending a lot of money on a used original PS3, since it's been several years. I don't tend to trust used hardware unless it's throwaway cheap (like buying a GC or original Xbox now) or I know the previous owner. I'd rather sock away a PSTwo in the closet than worry about whether the hardware is going to die on me.

  11. Spouse had some kind of guide or chart not that long ago -- I'll see if I can get a link from him.

  12. Console JRPGs are what really got me back into video games after a 5-ish-year period where I was too poor to afford & maintain an up-to-date gaming PC (and during which the PC game scene seemed to be dominated by RTS & FPS games, neither of which I enjoy). The combination of complex stories & attractive art really appealed to me. The fact that there were often multiple female characters with different personalities who actually did interesting things was also a plus. (That's not to say that there aren't issues with female JRPG characters, but the mere fact that so many of them had roles that went beyond "the girl" was a big plus for me.)

    I remember I played Chrono Cross around the time it came out, but it was not one of my favorites; I really don't remember anything about it. I think there might have been dragons? Or maybe not.

    Sadly, the genre doesn't seem to have kept up with modern developments in gameplay, and the ones I've played in the last couple years (FF13 & _Lost Odyssey_) have felt really clunky when compared to things like _Mass Effect_.

  13. I'm so glad you're playing Chrono Cross! It's one of my all-time favorite games. And I say that despite the fact that I find the gameplay mechanics unsatisfying and characterizations loose and shallow.

    No, Chrono Cross is a special game to me because it's the platonic ideal of a sequel. It uses its unique perch, sitting atop the mythology and goodwill generated by one of the most popular games of all time, to delve to stranger and darker places than would be possible in a brand new property. Most sequels either simply rehash the original work ("A NEW VILLAIN, OH NO"), or just expand outward without introducing any new thoughts about the rules of the world, but Chrono Cross takes the opportunity to mature its universe, while somehow skipping over the adolescent angst that usually accompanies that kind of change. And, of course, it has one of the greatest game scores of all time.

    It takes a little while to really hit its stride, but once you're about halfway through the game, I think you'll find it deeply rewarding. I hope you'll keep posting about it as you play through it.

    Apropos of nothing, it breaks my heart that the team responsible for Chrono Cross left Square to make Xenosaga.

  14. This is actually exactly a conversation Husband & I started having this morning over GChat.  There was an era, from the mid- or late-1990s and lasting until, oh, the middle of the last decade, say, where Japanese studios, writing, companies, and innovation were the really serious drivers of top-level gaming.  But then there came Halo, and an American company found itself on the console map.  Then the GameCube was kind of a flop, the 360 came out, the PS3 lagged behind, and suddenly a few years later the landscape was really different, and has remained so.

    (He suggested I write about the dominance and decline of the JRPG as compared to US / EU studios, and it's a great topic -- but first I'll need actually to play some of these classic JRPGs I think. ;) )

  15. Oh my god. I totally started with Dragon Warrior as well...I think I can still get to the four little squares where Gold Man hung out. Not worth the experience, but you know, made out of gold.

  16. For what it's worth, the
    platforms that carry games that most retain the most JRPG flavor are the
    DS and to some degree the PSP--and the Persona series on PS2. But it's absolutely true that the genre hasn't kept up with developments in
    games...I think mostly because of the premium the core fans seem to place on
    difficulty. It's still the realm of the 50+ hour game, and the
    easiest way to implement a feeling of difficulty across the board is
    tougher (as in higher statted) enemies, whereas other rpgs take enough
    from FPSes or many gamers have enough familiarity with FPSes that your
    Bioware games will never feel as "hard". The other split being between
    role-playing as you create your role (bioware and "Western" rpgs) and
    play a role (usually a sulky teenager). Hell, the Grind is such a virtue
    that FF12(?) included something called gambits, which were basically
    scripts to run your characters so you could automate grinding--as
    opposed to modifying the difficulty curve.

    Other than increasing visual capabilities, I think to some degree it's
    that developments in technology don't lend themselves to the traits that
    say "this is a jrpg". I'd say the first Parasite Eve was one of the
    successful developments, but that most of the newer games that still
    feel like jrpgs are fairly purposely throwbacks or take in more Final
    Fantasy Tactics elements....though Radiant Historia on the DS was well

  17. FF7 was the game I bought my original Playstation. Great times. 

  18. One thing that has endeared me to JRPGs (and BioWare D&D RPGs) is that I seem to have almost exactly the opposite wiring for taste preferences ... I absolutely love micromanaging inventory, running the entire team, and being carried along on slow, lyrical arcs. The game-intro video you posted, in fact, starts with exactly the kind of semi-mystical poetry over an old tome that I like as setup for the frenetic blipverts that follow.

    Chrono Cross is possibly the best JRPG sequel ever, and Chrono Trigger was no slouch as an original game. The battle system had a good rhythm to it, one closer to the timer-tension of Final Fantasy VI and less like the open ended clobbering of Final Fantasy VII.

    I'd be interested in your take on JRPG gaze after playing a few of them, both from the boom era ('97-'04 or so) and from the early era ('90-'95ish).

    As the long, lingering final shots of the intro video above shows, there is a lot of ogle-the-love-interest once cut-scene videos could reach cinematic art quality in the boom era. Boom-era JRPGs are chock full of male fan-service video and characters (q.v. Lulu from Final Fantasy X), although they also fetishized and lingered a bit on some of the dudes (q.v. Vincent from Final Fantasy VII).

    By contrast, earlier works, being sprite-driven overhead views and combats, never had as much desire to fetishize the ladies. If the lady generals and paladins and summoners didn't wear convincing armor, neither did any of the dudes, and the clothing that everyone wore instead was artistic and avant-garde much more than it was asset-enhancing.