There are great sequels. And then there are all the crappy ones that seem like little more than cynical cash grabs. I’m going to focus on the former.
Sometimes, the best sequels take a classic formula and evolve on them. I loved Final Fantasy II (IV in Japan), Uncharted II, Mass Effect 2, Super Mario Galaxy 2, and Phantasy Star II. Other times, they take the series in a completely different direction, giving it new life as with Resident Evil IV, Super Mario Bros. 2, and Grand Theft Auto III.
From a developer’s perspective, sequels can be a lot more work than they might seem on the surface. I’ve had the chance to work on multiple sequels, from the Medal of Honor games, to movie sequels, like Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2. It all comes down to planning; how much to reuse, and how much to adapt to new technology? In all the games and films I’ve worked on, it’s always been important to keep in mind that older iterations used older tech and modernizing them can take a lot more time. How to satisfy fans and stay true to the spirit of the original while also innovating enough so that it actually adds to the original?
I like how every main Final Fantasy is a standalone game without any real connection to the previous games (aside from character and thematic ties). Dragon Quest does a good job of tying to the legacy of the series while weaving a new story with each entry.
And then, there’s Chrono Cross. I wrote about Chrono Cross at Kotaku a few years back and called it “a bad sequel, but a brilliant game.” The interesting thing was, that was by design. As director Masato Kato stated: “In my view, the whole point in making Chrono Cross was to make a new Chrono with the best available skills and technologies of today. I never had any intentions of just taking the system from Trigger and moving it onto the PlayStation console. That’s why I believe that Cross is Cross, and NOT Trigger 2.”
If you take Cross more as a thematic link to Trigger, rather than a sequel, you start to see Chrono Cross’ unique brilliance. It’s about different realities, the choices characters makes, and how circumstances give people varying lives based on those decisions. Serge is one of the most dramatic examples, being dead in one universe, and alive and thriving in another. Following those threads to their ends and seeing the way their fates are interlinked is in some ways deeper than the genealogy of time with Trigger. And the soundtrack is nothing sort of sublime.
So Kotaku, the question today is, what is your favorite game sequel?
There are so many great, memorable levels in the Zelda series, from Majora Mask’s Stone Tower Temple to the Arbiter’s Grounds in Twilight Princess. But a level that’s always stayed with me from the series is the Palace of Winds from the Minish Cap.
Developed by Capcom and Flagship, The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap was released in 2004 for the Game Boy Advance. I feel it’s an overlooked entry in the series that doesn’t get as much love as some of Link’s other portable outings, like the Oracle games. While size transformation of the Honey, I Shrunk The Kids variety was the main new gimmick introduced in Minish Cap, the Palace of Winds was about climbing high up into the heavens and braving the heights. It fused Mario-style platforming with the distinct puzzling of Zelda. In fact, there are several nods to the Mario series in the palace that make it all the more memorable.
Creating a sense of verticality and height is difficult in an overhead perspective. But the Palace of Winds is structured almost like a series of islands floating in the sky. Clouds, actual islands, and the ocean lie far below. When you first enter the palace, the only way to get across is through a series of bridges that are activated via crystal switches. You have to fight off groups of Peahats and use a combination of arrows, boomerangs, and bombs to trigger the crystal switches in the right places. The process feels cumbersome, especially as some of the switches are hard to reach. But this is intentional since it’s a setup for the dungeon’s key item.
The Roc’s Feather, first introduced in Link’s Awakening, is one of my favorite items in the overhead Zelda games, as it allows Link to jump. The treasure you gain in the Palace of Winds is the Roc’s Cape, which not only allows you to jump, but glide across big chasms as well. Usually in Zelda dungeons, the treasure comes about halfway through it. In the palace, you earn it fairly early on after defeating a swarm of fire-hurtling Wizzrobes, indicating that it’ll be an important component of your playthrough. Donning the cape means that you no longer have to rely on activating bridges to cross pits.
Through the freedom of flying, I came to understand the original builders of the Palace of Winds—the Wind Tribe. The Wind Tribe lives in the clouds and can magically control the wind. Their ability to harness and manipulate wind is felt nowhere as clearly as with the Roc’s Cape, which allows Link to jump up into the clouds and soar. I could imagine tribe members leaping from one location to another. And the palace is huge, easily one of the longest dungeons in Minish Cap.
The palace is swarming with enemies and grates that flip over, which tug on the nostalgia strings since they’re so similar to the ones from Super Mario World. Even one of the original Mario enemies, Lakitu, makes an appearance here, riding on clouds and attacking with lightning bolts. Keeping with the motif of the Mario games, there are also moving platforms that Link has to traverse to make his way through the palace.
Some of the trickiest parts of the palace involve activating three copies of Link, then getting on a moving platform, avoiding obstacles, and reaching another part of the palace to perform a task that only the three of them can do, like moving a huge block. Since the copies of Link evaporate once the green magic gauge runs out, the time constraints, coupled with the massive drops, heighten the intensity.
With breakable floors forcing you to keep on your toes, and potential drops around every corner, the palace constantly reminds you that you’re high up in the sky. Even though falling off the edge only does minimal damage, I still felt pressure not to fall.
Gone With The Wind
The developers do a wonderful job setting puzzles up, and then allowing you to harness the pieces to solve seemingly impassable routes. For example, you first come across a series of fans that let out streams of strong wind that push you over the side. Waiting for the right time to jump, or hide in a hole, is key to crossing these sections. But shortly after that, you are confronted with a massive pit that’s too wide to jump over, even gliding with the Roc’s Cape. In this case, you have to use the fans, not avoid them, waiting for them to shoot out long gusts of wind, then use that wind to cross the massive chasm. Levitating torches guide Link’s way, showing where he should aim his flight.
The Big Key, which opens the pathway to a Zelda dungeon’s boss, usually represents the climax of a dungeon. Here, it’s barely the midpoint. You open up what you think is the path to the final boss, only to find yourself standing over a gigantic pit. A dive lands you on an island and a mid-boss battle.
There are subtle references Minish Cap makes to previous games in the series, and my favorite is the mid-boss battle music, which is a remake of the Zelda II’s original boss battle music on the Famicom (it was replaced with a different tune outside Japan). The mid-boss fight against the giant Red Darknut can either be a very easy battle, or a difficult one. Putting aside the question of how he got onto that tiny, isolated island in the first place, the key to a quick victory is to knock him off the side of the platform, using the environment to your advantage. This also reminds you of how precarious your situation is high up in the palace and how fortunate you are to have the cape.
After the Darknut’s defeat, you keep on climbing. Tornadoes are interspersed throughout the back half of the dungeon, tossing Link up into the air and forcing him to glide to either another platform or tornado. Link continues to jump up through the clouds, warding off Wizzrobes, Gibdos, and Moblins.
Going into mini-mode isn’t an important part of the palace, which makes sense since it’s all about the wind and flying across the air. But I do feel it was a missed opportunity, as soaring across gaps that would be tiny for big Link could have led to some interesting puzzles.
The boss of the palace is a Gyorg Pair. They’re like giant flying manta rays which you have to ride atop. This final fight forces you to combine all of the gameplay techniques you’ve utilized in the palace. You clone yourself, then attack the multiple eyes in a flurry of sword swings. But the male Gyorg swoops in for a strike, damaging Link and also causing the clones to dissipate. Link is forced to leap from the big Gyorg to the smaller male, weaken him, then return. It’s a frenetic battle across the sky, and the music complements the pace well. The female Gyorg even releases her children, which you have to kill. Multiple jumps from one Gyorg to the other follow, as do more cloned attacks and swift dodges. Eventually, Link triumphs.
Honestly, it’s a sad sequence when you actually think about it. This Gyorg family is chilling in the skies when Link comes to attack and essentially massacre the entire family. Is his need for the wind element so important that the Gyorgs had to be killed to gain it?
Without it, Link can’t gain the sacred blade and defeat Vaati. The cost the Elemental Sanctuary demands is bloody and dark, despite the colorfully vibrant aesthetic. Link eventually becomes master of the four swords and the elements, and can finally defeat Vaati. But the cycle perpetuated by this plunge will haunt Link and all future Links to come.
I loved the way the palace used verticality to incorporate a different type of experience into the Zelda franchise. While some of it openly borrows from Mario, the quirky charm and challenges Minish Cap employs makes the Palace of Winds one of the best levels in the series.
In general, it feels like the portable outings for Zelda encourage more experimentation and quirkiness, whether it’s the dream world of Link’s Awakening or the seasonal and temporal manipulation of the Oracle games. This is very much welcome in a series that, until recently with Breath of the Wild, could be rather formulaic. My only wish for Minish Cap was that it was longer. But sometimes the best things come in minish sizes.
It’s been so long since a game has truly scared me that A Plague Tale: Innocence caught me completely off guard. Tense, terrifying, and meticulously crafted, Plague Tale excels at making you feel utterly helpless. Set in late 1349 in Aquitaine, France, the medieval setting is one of the game’s strengths, distinguishing itself with the backdrop of a dark, and tragic, history.
Like many gems I’ve played of late, I found Plague Tale in the used section at GameStop and picked it up without knowing anything about it. I like to go into games without any preconceptions or ideas, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into.
The Inquisition, Not A Show
After an idyllic hunting session with your father, the game turns into an unrelenting onslaught of human brutality. The main character, Amicia, watches as her family and their servants are brutally murdered by soldiers from the Inquisition. She has to escape her family estate with her sick brother, Hugo, but one wrong turn, and it’s death. Servants are being executed left and right as the Inquisition wants to know more about the research your mother was doing. You and Hugo stealthily slip away, using only rocks and pots to distract enemies.
Normally, a panic-stricken escape leads to a comfort zone and a reprieve. But when you get to the neighboring city, you learn it’s been infested with the Plague, and there are marks over the walls warning people to stay away. “I can smell something cooking. Is it a fair?” Hugo innocently asks.
The “fair” turns out to be a live human burning. When the villagers see you, their leader blames you and says you’re responsible for “that filth what attacked our children in their beds and gave em’ the black thing.” They begin to hunt you down.
What makes this sequence so terrifying is that these aren’t monsters or villainous soldiers after you. They’re regular townsfolk, ready to burn you at the stake because they think you’ve caused the plague, “Why are they angry?” Hugo asks. “Are they going to burn us too?”
Running from alleyway to alleyway while hoping for an egress was one of the most stressful sequences I’ve experienced in a long time. I swore the paths were becoming narrower as the sense of claustrophobia intensified. You can hear the villagers talking, demanding, “Search the houses! We can’t let the vermin get away!” One wrong turn, and you’re both dead. Eventually, you stumble into the house of an old woman, who hides you.
I can’t remember the last time I was so grateful to a game character.
As scary as Resident Evil 2 was, the weapons it gave you leveled the playing field against the hordes of zombies. For most of Plague Tale, your primary weapon is a sling. It might have been effective against a slow, lumbering, giant like Goliath, but against the rapid enemies that chase you everywhere, it’s not the most effective weapon, at least not until you fully upgrade it.
The very first time you kill someone with your sling, the music stops and you hear your own heartbeat. Amicia is disoriented, and the shock of her act shook me up as well. I appreciated how she even takes a moment to reflect on the deaths afterwards, struck by guilt. “Forgive me for… the evil I have just committed… I never…” she says in front of a church altar, right before her brother complains that she’s squeezing his hand too hard. She’s crossed a moral line she can never come back from, and I love how the developers incorporated that into the story.
Where Plague Tale really gets under your skin is the way Amicia changes throughout the journey. As the treachery of her enemies increases, she’s forced to adapt accordingly. There’s a sequence where she has to walk across a battlefield full of corpses. Their bodies lay hacked to pieces on the ground. She and Hugo wade through slowly, and the feeling of disgust is overwhelming. Any innocence is shed quickly, and after this sequence she begins to kill with far less hesitation.
Another gruesome sequence happens when you have to hide under a wooden structure where multiple people have been hanged. Underneath are body parts, organs, and guts strewn about like a human casserole. Amicia is repulsed by the stench, but forces herself to get through. The horror of stepping over all the corpses is truly revolting. Casual violence is everywhere and the unfortunate effect it has is increasing your tolerance for it. There is no law. The Inquisition seems like it’s murdering people faster than the plague. Amicia and Hugo either have to evolve to face the circumstances, or perish the way the others have been ruthlessly killed.
Do Not Implore Her For Mercy
While the humans pose the greatest threat, there are also swarms of rats everywhere that can eat you to the bone. The rats aren’t scary so much as they are a puzzle element. Over 5000 rats can show up simultaneously on the screen, and they can block your way, but they’re afraid of the light. These segments require you to make clever use of the lights to channel the rats, opening paths in the process and allowing you to make your way across obstructions. In one part, you have to set windmill sails on fire and follow the light paths caused by the sails that force the rats to disperse.
But even when it comes to the rats, it’s the human choices that stay with me. There’s one area where the rats block your path, but you need to get across to obtain a key item. So you lure a living pig towards the rats as bait. “Are we going to feed him?” Hugo ignorantly asks about the pig, unaware of what Amicia is really planning. “Make sure you chew properly, or you’ll get a stomachache,” Hugo cautions the pig in a caring tone.
Amicia locks the pig into the area with the rat infestation and destroys one of the lamps. Hugo, realizing what’s going on for the first time, yells, “No! Amicia! What are you doing?” Amicia ignores him and takes out the other lamp, letting the rats swarm the pig. “Stop! They’re eating it! It’s still alive!” Hugo pleads. Amicia tries to explain they have no choice and this is the only way forward. Hugo’s words are damning: “It’s horrible… You’re just like all the others!”
I felt like a terrible human being.
Later in the game, Amicia goes back to her family manor and finds the enemy guards who attacked your servants. They’ve been injured by the rats and are barely fending them off thanks to nearby torches. They plead for mercy, not wanting to die. It’s completely up to you if you take out their lights so the rats can devour them.
Equipment upgrades ease the burden of the journey, like increasing your pocket load to carry more materials or quicker reload times for your sling. But death was still a constant companion, and A Plague Tale can be unforgiving, as detection almost always results in death. Fortunately, reloads and continues are fast, and you can usually figure out what to do after a few deaths.
You eventually learn why the Inquisition is after you. They’re seeking a special power called the Prima Macula which, surprise, Hugo possesses. It allows him to control the swarms of rats and use them against his enemies. The magical ability ties back to the Justinian Plague, and there’s a whole lore to it which I thought was interesting. But I actually found the first half of the game much more haunting. It felt like I was living through a society in decay thanks to the Plague and the senselessness with which death had taken so many lives. The grimy society, the bloody hell it’s causing on the villagers, and the corpse fields were part of the indelible imagery. I was happy not to be living there.
Hugo and Amicia’s relationship waxes and wanes like those of real siblings. Most times, Amicia is there for Hugo and they have touching exchanges, but other times, she gets frustrated with him. One deception Amicia makes to Hugo in an attempt to protect him backfires, and leads to a whole lot of trouble. The voice acting is spot-on and their relationship is palpable.
After the introduction of the Grand Inquisitor, Vitalis Benevent, the story transforms into something more supernatural and less menacing. The Grand Inquisitor wants the power of the Prima Macula and injects himself with Hugo’s blood to gain that power. They have a final confrontation that has Hugo using an army of black rats to fight the Grand Inquisitor’s army of white rats. It’s actually a fun boss battle, even if the idea of rat armies facing off against each other seems surreal.
For me, the real plague wasn’t the rats or the disease. It’s the way the Inquisition used the tragedy to manipulate, murder, and control the population. It’s humans that are causing much of the destruction, and their tale is mostly a damning one. Unlike A Plague Tale, real life doesn’t offer swarms of rats we can hurl at our enemies to defeat them.
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.
The very first time I was a guest writer for Kotaku, I wrote about Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV, which was my favorite in the series. I’ve played ROTKIV too many times to count as its strategy gaming at its best. I did play many of the games after IV, but missed IX-XII. With the recent announcement of ROTKXIV, I picked up part XIII to see what had changed in the past decade and how the series had improved using the graphical capabilities of the PS4.
Honestly, I wanted to like Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII more than I did.
The Romance games are almost like Pokemon with famous historical figures from the eponymous Chinese saga, mixed together with the PC strategy classic, Civilization. In terms of the Three Kingdoms saga itself, think Game of Thrones fused with the works of Shakespeare, only set in China around 200 C.E., and you’ll have an idea of how important and influential it is in Asia.
What’s great about the games are that you can recruit some of the best generals and tacticians in the different factions, from warriors like Xu Chu and Zhao Yun, then unite them together under your banner. The epic novels were an important part of my childhood, so the possibility of rival warlords like Cao Cao and Lu Bu serving under Liu Bei blew my mind. I mentioned this in my last article, but I loved how the game let me rewrite history. Some of my favorite characters died under tragic circumstances in the novel. Through the ROTK games, I was able to rewrite their fates. Saving Guan Yu and Zhang Fei from dying when they did (and hence avoiding the fall of a grief-stricken Liu Bei going after Sun Quan, only to face disastrous consequences) was one of my favorite parts. Not only that, but the portrait art for the series has always been fantastic, and ROTKXIII has some of the best art in that sense. It gave many obscure characters a face, especially since the cast of hundreds in the books can be hard to keep track of.
While the core concepts remain similar, the execution in XIII was vastly different and there were lots of nice changes. The evolution of the interface and turned based elements confused me initially, but I liked how the game has embraced real time. In previous iterations, you were given the opportunity to make your commands city by city, then have your turn come to an end while other warlords made their moves. Now, everything is in real time and the days tick by, making things feel more natural. Need to go on a diplomatic mission? The game will tell you how many days you need and actually go with your step by step through the process. You can engage in debates with the advisors of foreign leaders to try to get them to do what you want as well.
The streamlining simplifies commands and delegation is important here. So is trusting your advisors, which will in turn improve your relationship and rapport. They’ll suggest a course of action via icons in the lower part of the screen, like training your soldiers to increase proficiency in spears, horses, and bows, or taking steps to improve commerce. You can also grab a drink together to strengthen your bond. This is an improvement over the older iterations, which basically amounted to giving your followers gold as gifts to increase their loyalty. The individual characters can also gain experience points by their actions in attributes like leadership, war, and intelligence, adding a RPG element to the gameplay. It’s a nice feature, allowing your characters to actually grow throughout the campaign instead of having their stats remain the same.
Koei has added the ability to build facilities like a tavern and brewery (which reminded me of Civilization) as well as research different techs to improve the city, like a sentiment boost or gate reinforcements. I do wish the individual cities could have done more to differentiate themselves based on their real world locations.
In the books, each city had its own unique characteristics and a fascinating history behind it, explaining, in part, why certain warlords wanted to acquire them. Incorporating some of those elements and maybe even allowing players to walk within the actual city would have been fascinating. For example, seeing the lush scenery of Chengdu would make the Shu capital feel as valuable as it did when Zhuge Liang first described the land to Liu Bei (I’ve visited Chengdu before and it’s really an amazing city). Actraiser back on the SNES did a great job making you actually care about each of the regions you lorded over. ROTKXIII does have different layouts for each city, but too many times, they become a list of stats that blended into one another with my primary focus turning to the border towns from where I could launch battles.
When it comes to warfare, there are some significant changes. Similar to the political/city building aspect, the fights take place in real-time. In one sense, there is a chaotic authenticity to the experience that makes them more engaging. You can deploy up to ten units per battlefield and call in reinforcements to assist you. The frenetic battles are like real time xiangqi (Chinese chess) and include naval battles and siege warfare. The strategic aspect can be overwhelming at first, even with the ability to pause. I sent a few armies to take over an opposing castle, only to face a flood of reinforcements pouring in all at once against me. It was a tough battle that I lost, until I realized I could use this as a ploy. I’d send out one massive army first, which would cause reinforcements from my enemies to send their armies and leave behind only nominal forces to defend their other cities. I’d send in other units to mop up those other areas. Rinse and repeat.
My biggest disappointment is that the graphics look like they could have been on the PS1 or PS2. I know the ROTK games have never been about the graphics, but ROTKIII has fantastic cutscenes and Koei has shown they can recreate amazing battles in the Dynasty Warrior games. XIII’s cluster of low-polygonal soldiers moving about the battlefield felt just a notch about what I’d experienced on consoles from previous generations. At the least, I was hoping to see the armies led by the officers I’d chosen. While there are portraits of the generals above each army, I wanted to see the stronger warriors actually mow down foot soldiers in battle. Seeing how each of the characters fights in the book was part of their character building, like the way Guan Yu kills a dangerous foe before the wine he was offered by Cao Cao cooled down, or Zhang Fei faces off against the entirety of Cao Cao’s army by himself on the Changban Bridge.
While there are duels in ROTKXIII, the one-on-one confrontations plays out more like rock-paper-scissors. I know this is the way it’s been in the past, but some evolution here would have been welcome, especially if they gave players more control over the individual fights.
A lot of my requests have to do with the fact that with every new iteration, my expectations grow. There are several Three Kingdoms TV shows and movies, and the battles are some of the most memorable parts with long arrays of soldiers facing off against one another. Often times, the victory isn’t about who has the most soldiers; it’s about which generals and tacticians understand the enemy psychology to exploit them. This was the case in the John Woo directed film, Red Cliff, which was about the great Battle of Chibi from the Three Kingdoms, showcasing the machinations of Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu against Cao Cao.
ROTKXIII doesn’t recreate that epic scale, but clumps individual units until they kind of blend into one another. With the power of the PS4, I wished Koei could have brought battles from films like Red Cliff to life. It didn’t have to go full Dynasty Warriors, but more accurate visual representation would have made the game’s battles have so much more gravity. Instead, I have to admit, at times, it felt like the tactical strategy analog of grinding for experience levels (each castle powering up your force).
One other change I felt conflicted about was that soldiers are no longer drafted as a command, but automatically enlisted depending on the city you’re in and its population. I didn’t like this change because it took away from the sense of control. While untrained soldiers don’t last long against battle hardened ones, this automation at times felt like it prolonged battles as foes would just keep respawning indefinitely.
But ultimately, the most important question and the one that matters most is, how fun is Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII? And that’s the thing. Despite all my gripes, despite my longing for better visuals, I couldn’t stop playing. The core of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms games are so good, all these decades later, I spent several nights unable to stop playing it.
I generally select Liu Bei and pick the timeline when the three kingdoms are already set up with tactical genius, Zhuge Liang, by my side. There are six scenarios and a story mode as well that serves as a useful tutorial campaign and an introduction to the story.
A big reason I wanted to dive back into the latest Romance of the Three Kingdoms game is that there’s a newer version of the Chinese show that I’ve been enjoying. The actor who plays Cao Cao, Chen Jianbin, was awesome. Cao Cao is often portrayed as an evil warlord, but I liked this more balanced portrayal of a leader who instituted a strong meritocracy and brought order to the world. Chen Jianbin does a great job showing Cao Cao’s charm, leadership, and ruthlessness when it comes to achieving his objective. “I’d rather betray the world, than let the world betray me,” Cao Cao famously declared. While he’s magnanimous to those who serve him loyally, he’ll also take whatever steps are necessary to secure his power.
What makes the series so attractive are the timeless stories. Fate, injustice, persistence, and interpersonal relationships are at the forefront of every scene. There’s the supremely powerful, but ultimately incompetent, Yuan Shao, who is as frustrating a boss as a person can have. There’s Sun Ce, toiling under a master he hates, until he seizes his own destiny and carves out his own empire in the Wu region.
The story occurs across multiple generations and small actions that happened decades ago come back to have a major impact later in the narrative. While some of the story is “romanticized,” as the title suggests, it’s based on actual history, making it all the more compelling. Just recently, I was going through a very difficult time, struggling with the situation. In Episode 14 of the Three Kingdoms show, I was deeply moved to watch the plight of Liu Bei during a disastrous campaign where he’s ordered to attack the rebel, Yuan Shu. The close friend he appointed as governor of their capital, Zhang Fei, loses the city in a drunken bout to the rival general Lu Bu. Liu Bei then finds himself pinned between the fiercely treacherous Lu Bu on his rear, and his enemy, the corrupt warlord Yuan Shu. Liu Bei’s trusted friend, Zhang Fei, has failed him, he’s lost his family, and his life is at risk. “There is no refuge for us,” Liu Bei states in despair. “We can neither go forward nor retreat. Is Heaven truly determined to destroy me?” In this moment of trial, he doesn’t get upset and try to get vengeance or retrieve the castle that was stolen from him in what would have been a futile attempt, despite his generals wanting to do that. Liu Bei carefully considers his options, and acts with humility and compassion towards Zhang Fei. His acceptance of his fate, and his strength in confronting defeat with dignity and honor, was very powerful for me, and a reminder to always keep your eye on the bigger picture.
There are so many stories like this I can recount, numerous times where lessons from Three Kingdoms have helped me navigate some of the trickier situations in my life. The chance to simulate some of my favorite stories is what makes all the Romance of the Three Kingdoms games so special. And it’s also why decades from now, despite any quibbles, I’ll probably still be playing whatever number the series is at.
Whether it’s Link in Link’s Awakening, or Mario in Super Mario Bros. 2, Nintendo characters have strange dreams.
The dreamish landscape of Subcon is a surreal romp with some of the strangest enemies in the series. Influenced by Arabian themes, the second Mario game didn’t start off as the sequel to Super Mario Bros., a story that most people reading this probably know. But in my eyes, it was the Mario game I longed for the most, thanks in large part to the marketing campaign in Nintendo Power magazine. I remember receiving the first issue of Nintendo Power and being in awe that a sequel to Mario was coming out. I had to get my hands on it.
Learning From Dreams
Starting up Super Mario Bros. 2 as a player, I had to unlearn everything I’d learned in the first Mario. Jumping on enemies no longer crushed them. If anything, they seemed oblivious to your presence, pacing back and forth even when your character is standing atop them. The new gameplay mechanic was all about picking things up and throwing them, either weaponized vegetables that you pulled from the ground, or the enemies themselves. Gone were Goombas and Koopa Troopas. In their place were Shyguys wearing a mask (what’s underneath the creepy mask?), Pidgits riding magic carpets, and gigantic moving cacti called Pokeys.
But the most significant change came on the first screen after pressing Start. You weren’t limited to only playing Mario (or a palette-swapped version of him as Luigi, if you were player 2) anymore. You could play as one of four characters, each of whom had varying strengths and weaknesses.
My favorite character, by far, was Princess Peach. I know Toad is the fastest (making for an ideal speedrunning character) and Luigi has the best jump, but Peach could briefly hover in the air, and using that flying technique was my favorite part of the game.
Some context is important here. Most platforming games of that time were brutally unforgiving with their jumping puzzles. You need only look at the first Mario to see what I mean. If you want to be even more masochistic, play the original version of Super Mario Bros. 2, known as The Lost Levels in the States. Princess Peach’s flying ability brought a finesse to platforming, making obstacles more forgiving. Miss one of those Trouters jumping from a bottomless waterfall? Have Peach glide until the next Trouter jumps out of the water.
Peach also allowed players to float over throngs of enemies, making their journeys through Subcon more enjoyable ones. Bob-Ombs, which were first introduced in this game, make World 5-3 difficult. Selecting Princess Peach, you can fly over most of them.
Peach’s floating ability was the first of Nintendo’s many different solutions to the problem of letting players more finely-tune their jumps. It was the direct predecessor of Mario 3’s raccoon tail, Mario 4’s cape (here I refer to these power-ups’ ability to slow your descent, not to take flight), FLUDD in Mario Sunshine, and even the Glydon form in Odyssey.
This sense of whimsy is spread throughout the game. Rockets take you to new areas, the Starman makes players invincible, and POW boxes are a throwback to the original arcade version of Mario Bros.
Sub-space is a shadowy alternate dimension where everything is flipped. But the music, hearkening back to the original Mario, implies that sub-space is the reality, especially since the familiar mushroom only appears here to give an energy boost. Which is real?
Memory has clouded my view of Super Mario Bros. 2. I’d remembered it as the easiest of the three NES Mario games. But I died a bunch of times when I began my replay, and that was mostly because I tried to play it the same way I had the original Mario, which was to race my way through a bunch of platforms.
I couldn’t help but notice how many times SMB2 slowed me down, whether it had me digging through a pit of sand, tracking down a key, or bombing my way through walls. SMB2 made me pause and soak in the world. What to do next? Players could move left on the screen as well as right, and there were vertical stages as well. The first level began with a plunge from the sky, showcasing the game’s verticality. I loved riding Pidgit’s magic carpet over a big chasm. There were a variety of new solutions to old problems.
There was one section that stumped me as a kid. In World 4-3, you come out of a small cave and see a Birdo. Go left, and there’s a dead end. Go right, and there’s an uncrossable pit. I didn’t know what to do, so I beat Birdo, wondering if that was the key. Nothing happened. I went back inside the entry point, but there wasn’t anything to do down there either. Then it hit me. Could I ride one of Birdo’s eggs across the pit? I tried jumping on, and rode her egg all the way across until I came across a new island. I can’t tell you how excited I was to figure that one out on my own.
The variety of worlds in SMB2 was welcome after the general similarity of the first game’s Mushroom Kingdom. You wander a desert, slip across an icy world, and even climb up into the sky for the final confrontation against Wart.
In an earlier article, Ethan Gach pointed out how deadly the Phantos were. I hated the Phantos and, similar to what Ethan described, still have a subconscious sense of fear at their presence. Long before the ghosts of Silent Hill 4 and Mr. X from Resident Evil 2 were chasing me, Phanto freaked me out. A big reason for that was they could chase you everywhere, including into sub-space. Its pursuit felt relentless, even though you could always technically just drop the key. The moment you picked it back up, the Phanto was back after you. Its creepy expression and the way it pursued your character was one of my first bouts with survival horror.
In contrast, the actual boss monsters struck little terror. They aren’t difficult, whether they’re a rock-throwing crab or a bomb-chucking mouse. The most surprising boss fight by far is in the final stage, when one of the bird-faced Mask Gates, which to that point were benign markers of the end of each level, comes to life and attacks you. Super Mario Bros. 2 likes to make you feel safe before pulling the carpet out from underneath you. I do wish there would have been a little more variety with the sub-bosses, most of which are Birdos in different color variants.
The battle against Wart is straightforward. Throw a bunch of vegetables into his mouth until he gets knocked out of his castle. But the ending that awaited was surprising. Before Jacob’s Ladder, Fight Club, and Identity tricked me, Mario 2 had the ultimate twist ending. The whole adventure was just Mario’s dream. So if Wart was a dream and therefore represented the subconscious of Mario, did Mario secretly hate vegetables? He’s also the least powerful character in his own dream. He’s not the fastest, doesn’t jump the highest, and certainly can’t float. Did he suffer feelings of inadequacy that only mushrooms could overcome?
The spirit of experimentation in all of these NES sequels was what made the games so special. This was back when classic games like Zelda, Castlevania, and Mario still hadn’t established a formula yet, so it didn’t feel strange when a new version came out and upended the whole design. I actually appreciated how different they were and in many ways, I loved the sequels more than the originals. I know people can debate whether this was the real Mario 2 or not, but for me, it definitely is, especially considering that the original Mario team members worked on it.
Nintendo generally excels the most when given freedom to play, whether in the dreamspace of Link’s Awakening, or the wonderful landscape of Subcon in Super Mario Bros. 2.SMB2 expanded the scope of the series, and it’s easy to see how the different gameplay styles of the four SMB2 characters evolved into the varying costumes of Super Mario Bros. 3, and eventually into the brilliant gameplay kaleidoscope of Odyssey.
Like Mario and Link, sometimes I also have strange dreams. The other day, I dreamed we lived in a world without video games. Time to get some vegetables and make that nightmare go away.
Kotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.
I’ve visited Shibuya before, but never like this. 428: Shibuya Scramble, which was developed for the PlayStation 4 by Chunsoft, released in September 2018 outside Japan. It’s kind of like those old full motion video (FMV) games. But instead of telling the story through badly compressed and grainy video, it uses a series of high resolution live-action still images set to text. What really caught my attention was that Shibuya Scramble was one of the rare games to receive the elusive perfect score from Famitsu magazine when it was first released in Japan in 2008. This put it on the same level as games like Vagrant Story, Ocarina of Time, and Dragon Quest XI.
Shibuya Scramble is a crime thriller that begins with a kidnapping. You play from the perspective of five different characters, all of whom are somehow connected with Hitomi Osawa, whose twin sister was kidnapped. In the opening of the game, she’s holding a suitcase full of money while standing in the famousShibuya crossroads, when she’s accosted by criminals. Achi Endo, an ex-gangster who now cleans up trash, runs to Hitomi’s rescue, unaware of the situation. Meanwhile, Shinya Kano, an undercover detective who’s helping Hitomi find her kidnapped twin sister, suspects Achi of being part of the criminal organization.
Tangential to them, there’s Tama, who’s working a day job inside a cat suit while promoting a diet drink; Minoru Minorikawa, a freelance journalist who is high on his work; and a scientist named Kenji Osawa who’s researching an anti-viral disease. They all seem like random strangers, but Shibuya, and its seedy underbelly, brings them together.
Your actions are limited to multiple-choice options. Choose wrong, and you’ll suffer a bad ending. You might choose right and still get the bad ending. That’s because of the parallel timelines in which you can jump from one character to another, change their actions, and as a result influence another person’s trajectory. For example: Detective Kano is on a stakeout when he gets a call from his girlfriend who wants him to meet her dad. If you urgently rush to flag down a taxi, it slows down another character, Minoru Minorikawa, who’s rushing in the cab to save his old boss from committing suicide. Thanks to the detective’s act, Minorikawa arrives five minutes late, and is unable to save his boss. If you jump back to the detective’s timeline, then opt not to flag the taxi down, you can re-play Monorikawa’s timeline and save his boss just as he’s about to hang himself.
There’s a lot of trial and error to the process, and the decisions have bigger ramifications as the game progresses. But every time things stray into the more serious, a comic moment occurs. Like when Kano is following a suspect on the subway, then bumps into his partner who’s dressed in an “anime-nerd getup” and elicits Kano’s incredulous stare. Then there’s the competition Tama has with a rival who’s dressed in a chicken suit and is somehow out-promoting her in the diet drink business, frustrating her to no end as she’s failing at her job.
Matters take on a more sinister turn with Kenji Osawa, the director at Okoshi Pharmaceutical. He’s been working on an antiviral drug for a deadly disease caused by the Ua virus, named after the Swahili word for the flower that ravages its victims. He receives an email with images of people suffering from the disease, and is blamed by a mystery sender for some crime that led to the outbreak.
There’s almost no voice acting in Shibuya Scramble, very little video, and only a series of stills to depict all the character interactions. I’m only a few hours in, but I have to say, somehow, it all works. I want to know more about the characters, find out exactly how their threads connect, and also see the branching paths. One action, or one choice to refrain from acting, causes different possibilities that reveal more about who each of them are.
But there’s another reason I’m so intrigued, and it’s the way Shibuya Scramble reminded me of something from my past.
A long, long time ago, back when I worked at LucasArts, a couple of us wanted to do a side project. So we came up with the idea of telling fictional stories through photographs, similar to Shibuya Scramble. They were called “webphotas” (don’t scoff too hard, ha ha) and were put online as a way of bridging traditional text stories with visual imagery.
We did a few different stories. One, called Searching for Normalcy, was about a guy meeting a bunch of strangers at payphones throughout San Francisco. Dark Serenity was a noir science fiction story about a detective who has to bring someone back from the dead to solve their murder. And Trois Soeur was a whimsical tale about three sisters and the dreams they have. We asked fellow co-workers to star in them, spending our afterhours working on these projects.
They were a blast, and so much fun to do. But they were also incredibly difficult to prepare for. It took a whole lot of time to write the story, prepare the story boards, scout the sets (all of which was done guerilla style), and find the right people. I loved exploring different parts of San Francisco and the North Bay, finding places with distinctive architecture, and trying to frame stories around these unique settings. Once that was all set, we had to do the actual shooting, which always ended up taking much longer than we’d scheduled for. We had expensive digital cameras for the time, but they were very limited. Smartphone cameras these days take better pictures than what we had. We asked friends at LucasArts to add additional visual effects, like smoke and fire blasts.
After I began playing through Shibuya Scramble, I wrote to some of the people I worked on the webphotas with, and joked we had picked the wrong medium and should have done visual novels instead. I laughed nostalgically with them about the time we went to the trash bins behind work at midnight to shoot a night scene and had to run extension cords from the warehouse, to the time when a very friendly actress was unable to do an angry gesture without bursting into laughter every few seconds.
Obviously, Shibuya Scramble is leaps beyond what we were doing back then. But I had a deep appreciation for the work. As the game’s producer Koichi Nakamura said in an interview with Polygon: “In many ways, this method of creating still images one-by-one is even more labor-intensive than a video shoot.” And I understood that perfectly. You’re always trying to get people to pose in a way that’s best for the story. Getting them to hold that pose while you get the lighting right and snapping different camera angles is difficult. Try holding a smile for longer than five seconds while a camera’s pointed at you, and you’ll know what I mean.
I’m totally intrigued by the storytelling in Shibuya Scramble. I’m excited to see where all the timelines take me, but most importantly, am appreciative for the way it reminded me of an episode from my past.
Pikmin is a weird, but beautiful, 2001 game for the Nintendo GameCube where you play as a villainous alien intruder, Captain Olimar.
Olimar is from the planet of Hocotate and has crash-landed on a strange planet that has high levels of oxygen. Unfortunately, oxygen is poisonous to the captain and his life support will fail in 30 days. A lot of unfamiliar creatures inhabit the planet and many of the areas are inaccessible to Olimar. Coming to his aid are the eponymous Pikmin, which are half-plant, half-animal creatures that look like walking flowers with two beady eyes stuck on their heads. They’re totally obedient, but also totally helpless without someone to guide them. Olimar eventually accumulates an army of hundreds of Pikmin to help him recover his ship parts so he can escape.
There is a serenity to the real-time strategy of the game in that there’s not the typical adversaries that are at the heart of most RTS games: no grand army to fight, no malevolent evil to overthrow. The principal enemy is time. Pikmin is about survival and warding off the threats of nature.
The Pikmin come in three vividly-colored variants. The Red represents the majority of the working force and are the first you encounter. Shortly after, you meet the Yellow Pikmin who can be thrown higher and can also carry bomb rocks. But as the captain soon finds out, the effect of the bombs can be devastating. “Oh, horrors! A bomb-rock explosion engulfed my Pikmin! That last horrified facial expression is burned into my memory.”
While the two other Pikmin types can’t go into water, the Blue Pikmin have gills so they can survive underwater. Together, the three types allow Olimar to explore the world and collect his ship parts. The controls are smooth as Olimar guides the Pikmin like a herd with his whistle. He can toss the Pikmin to areas they can’t access by themselves and use their cumulative numbers to overcome most obstacles. No matter how tense the situation, the music is calm and almost meditational in contrast to the violent conflict surrounding them.
The Pikmin designs are super cute, reflecting their whimsical nature, while their voices are very endearing. They sound like curious babies and their helplessness without Olimar reinforces how much they need him. It’s a symbiotic relationship where both appear to benefit each other. A lot of that assistance comes in the form (at least on the Pikmin side) of carrying heavy objects or moving things out of the way, like in the introductory chapter where 10 Pikmin have to move a cardboard box so Olimar can access his engine. In turn, Olimar helps their numbers grow, saving them from extinction. Many Pikmin do die in the process. They let out weak cries as they do and their tiny souls ascend from their bodies, wracking me with guilt after each death.
Captain Olimar struggles with his guilt as well and his actions haunts his subconscious, as he notes in his voyage log: “I had a horrific dream last night. I was home. My wife was cooking the Pikpik brand carrots I love so much, and I was eating them. Though I had eaten my fill, she kept bringing more fresh carrots until my mouth was full. I awoke gasping for breath. I am certain it is because these Pikmin remind me of these carrots that I had such a dream.”
But who exactly are these Pikmin? Are they as helpless as they seem? Olimar struggles with the question: “At times, these seemingly emotionless Pikmin act with a blind urgency. For instance, the Pikmin who so tirelessly dig up grass… What could be driving them to do so? Is it merely the promise of a sweet taste of nectar? Or is it some base instinct that is beyond my capacity to understand? Will I ever know?”
From the perspective of the indigenous life forms, Captain Olimar is the evil force disrupting their natural order thanks to parts from his ship that have crashed all around their neighborhood. There are entire families of Bulborbs who are minding their own business until hordes of Pikmin come stomping their way and annihilate them. But death isn’t enough. Even though their souls escape, their corpses are carted to the Onion ships where they are harvested and recycled into more Pikmin that do the bidding of Captain Olimar. Even Olimar has doubts about his actions as he wonders in one of his logs: “No matter how many of their compatriots fall in battle, the Pikmin fight on. Would this have been a peaceful planet had I never come?” He replies to the negative and tries to justify his actions. “Surely the Pikmin lived like this before my arrival. They MUST have. In any case, I must not waver if I hope to return home. My task now is to do whatever I can to recover all of the Dolphin’s missing parts.”
The more of the areas I explored, the more I slowly begin to realize that the planet Olimar crash landed on is Earth. In the Final Trial, you have to gather your Pikmin, go across a fortified area to track down the Emperor Bulblax. He’s the final boss and by far the toughest opponent in the game. He’s also totally innocent, just chilling in his place and relaxing by himself until the Pikmin invasion force arrives. What’s worse is that his defeat isn’t essential to the ship’s function. It just allows Olimar to retrieve the Secret Safe, where he stashes his money. In Olimar’s greed, he’s upset the meticulously crafted ecosystem that has evolved over time.
That made me wonder: What happened to the humans? Did the Pikmin have anything to do with their disappearance? If animals can be recycled and turned into more Pikmin, did that hint at humanity’s fate? Is it possible Pikmin are recycled humans (they have their own language, have more than basic intelligence, and also follow strong leaders without question even if it might mean death)? Had I unleashed a parasitic force, similar to the Tribbles of Star Trek, that the Earth creatures had fought so hard to vanquish? Just after Olimar finds all his ship parts and returns home, a bunch of Pikmin attack a wandering Bulborb without provocation. In the Earth’s atmosphere, numerous Onion ships appear, ready to take over the planet.
I had gone into Pikmin believing it to be a fun real-time strategy game that evolved from the Super Mario 128 demo, but I realized it was a horror game masquerading as a kid’s game. Only the monsters weren’t vicious looking with obvious visual indicators. They were cute colorful flower-like creatures, bent on global domination. All along, we thought Olimar was the conductor. But in reality, he was the one being manipulated to do the will of the Pikmin.
Ghost Trick is what you’d get if the film Ghost met Groundhog Day. Directed by the creator of the Ace Attorney Franchise, Shu Takumi, Ghost Trick makes death a puzzle you can play over and over a la Edge of Tomorrow. The core mystery at the heart of the game is your main character’s death. Who killed the red-suited Sissel right before the beginning of the game and why?
A Dashing Enigma
“A dead guy and a detective joined forces to find out the truth behind them both,” sums up much of the story. Divided into eighteen chapter with a colorful cast, the fates of all the characters are interlinked and one bad decision has had a ripple effect across ten years in multiple people’s lives.
What makes Ghost Trick so unique is that it takes what would normally be a horror themed element, that of ghostly possessions, and turns it into a core game mechanic. Sissel can take possession of objects and interact with them to perform his eponymous “ghost trick.” Through these interactions, Sissel engages in puzzles that are like one massive Rube Goldberg machine, usually with the intent of saving someone’s life. Sissel’s physical reach is limited, so that many times, getting to the right position is the key to solving a puzzle. This means engaging with the environment and using random objects to move Sissel. It’s fascinating how the combination of opening a drawer, turning on a fan, or moving a cart can drastically change a person’s fate.
There’s a lot of super complicated deaths in the game, whether it’s Detective Lynne getting crushed by a massive chicken after a police officer crashes into the restaurant when the bug he’s listening to goes haywire, or the minister of justice dying from a heart attack because he gets a threatening phone call about his daughter but can’t reach his medication in time. Fortunately, Sissel can rewind time to four minutes before someone’s death, at which point he can watch what happened, repeat, and try to avert their fate. Thought bubbles give clues as to what he should do next and the game is generous with its continues as Sissel can repeat a sequence as many times as he wants. He also has the ability to jump to different areas by tracing phone calls.
The gameplay is a bit linear as there’s only one road to averting death. For example, in the sequence where you have to save the Minister of Justice from his heart attack, Sissel has to make sure to possess the jug of water, jump to the ceiling fan when the minister raises it to his head. “Ghost tricking” the fan causes papers on his desk to get loose and fly away, which Sissel has to possess at the right time, or else he’ll miss the opportunity to get to the right spot. From there, a combination of getting a globe on a suit of armor while dropping a plank and bottle in right order to make sure the armor can hit the medicine bottle back to the minister was one of the parts I struggled with most because it demanded so much precision.
Then again, no one said being a ghost is easy.
Fortunately, the music is awesome and makes each sequence a joy to play. The animations perfectly convey each character’s personality, whether it’s the breakdancing Inspector Cabanela, the chillingly calculated assassins trying to take out Lynne, and the quirky guitar player and curry connoisseur in the prison. The controls feel intuitive and each chapter provides impactful plot twists that had me hooked. I couldn’t wait to find out what in the world was going on, both from a supernatural perspective and from a whodunit one as well.
All of their lives seem unconnected at first, so it’s fascinating to explore how tenuous the thread is that links them. Sissel, who at first seems like the only thing he cares about is solving his own mystery, grows throughout the game and realizes there’s more at stake than questions about his own identity. He helps people who’ve lost hope, like Jowd, a police officer who’s to be executed that night as he’s been accused of killing his wife. Detective Lynne is convinced Jowd is innocent and proving that is a big part of the narrative.
Each of the characters carries the burden of an unspeakable sorrow, dug out by Sissel’s ability to jump into their brain. One movable object made stationary, one immoveable feast moved, and the trajectories of their lives are changed. The ghost’s impact is subtle, an accumulation of seemingly minor events, resulting in a surprisingly big culmination that pries loose confessions. That sort of power is enough to even get another nation’s governments involved, while seemingly trivial decisions open up routes that have massive ramifications and result in literal life or death.
The game can be grim with its murders, but with repetition, the murders feel more and more surreal. Detective Lynne, who is the first person who Sissel saves, gets killed multiple times, to the point where she kids about it and her spirit is excited to uncover the truth behind her many deaths. Animals aren’t spared either, though they have more agency to change their fate than many of the humans.
The overfriendly pomeranian, Missile, becomes a playable character after gaining a whole different suite of ghost tricks. It doubles the ghost tricking possibilities as you jump between the characters. These interlinked sequences are some of the best, and also frustrating, parts, as I tried to figure out what order I needed to carry out the tricks. Escaping a sinking submarine while jumping between Sissel and Missile and also rescuing two people was one of the most tensely clever sequences in Ghost Trick.
While the ultimate explanation for the supernatural powers gets a scientific explanation I didn’t feel the game needed, the twisted labyrinth of how each of the character’s metaphorically ghost tricked each other’s life into its current form was fascinating. Inspector Cabanela accused an innocent man, Yomiel, of a crime he didn’t commit. This man, in his desperation, escaped to a park where a young girl happened to be playing. Another detective, Jowd, pursued Yomiel. That young girl, Lynne, has her life saved by a meteorite that kills Yomiel but also grants him supernatural powers. And so on until we find out that the Sissel isn’t who we think he is and you’re part of a decade long time cycle involving a ghostly lamp and a regret that unexpectedly haunts one of the characters involved.
While the meteor may have fueled some of the powers involved, it’s how the characters obstinately seek for an elusive truth that helps the convoluted tragedy unravel. In the end, each of them finds a peace to put their ghosts to rest, one trinket at a time.
Developed by Kadokawa Games for the PS Vita and PlayStation 4, the visual novel adventure takes place in the city of Matsue within the Shimane Prefecture. The protagonist, referred to as Max, is looking for his high school pen pal, Aya Fumino, after he finds a 15-year old letter in which she claims she killed someone. In the letters she sent, she describes seven friends using nicknames. It’s Max’s job to find out who each of these friends are and how they’re connected to her disappearance.
From the moment you arrive and soak in the surroundings, it’s clear the developers wanted Matsue to feel like the actual city. To that end, many of the locations are based on actual places such as Shiroyama Park, Hinomisaki Lighthouse, and the Lake Shinji Footpath.
Events take on a Silent Hill 2-esque twist when Max discovers that Aya actually died 25 years prior to the game, meaning that it’s impossible that she was his pen pal 15 years ago. The house she lived in burned down, and there are rumors of a ghost haunting the evacuated lot. Max’s investigation takes him all across the city and explanations seem murky, ranging from the supernatural to the extraterrestrial. It’s only when he starts discovering who each of the friends Aya described are that he starts getting answers. Unfortunately, they don’t welcome Max’s presence and even deny Aya’s existence when he initially corners them.
That’s because each of the friends has a tragic connection with Aya they want to keep secret. I found some of the friendships to be heartbreaking, as with Masaya Watanabe, referred to as Monkey by Aya. She describes him in her banana stationary as “a bit ill-tempered, but… a kind person at heart.” In the present, he’s the baseball coach at Matsue Oba High School. From the moment he sees you, he is openly hostile towards you. You have to engage in an investigation mode that is highly reminiscent of the Ace Attorney series, using a series of key items, questions, and a “Max Mode” where you make a selection from a circle of phrases to break him down to the point where he’s in tears.
Masaya was a star baseball player in high school, but badly hurt his right arm in a fight. If it wasn’t for Aya, who actually reported his fight to the teachers, he would have most likely continued down a bad path. But because of his fight, their team was unable to compete for the championship. “What you know is just the score. Scores and memories are different,” he says.
As his memories flood back to him and a soft piano melody plays, there’s a cut to Masaya as he looked in high school. It fades to the present and we learn who he was and how he got to be where he is now, a man torn by regret and guilt over a 15-year-old baseball game. Even though he tries to find redemption by helping students avoid his own fate, I felt bad for the guy.
As you find out who Aya’s six other friends are, you learn how each of them has done Aya a wrong in some way. This is not one of those feel-good stories where the characters you come across are ultimately good people, despite Aya’s faith in them. Jealousy, pettiness, and insecurity pushed them to do cruel things towards both Aya and each other. One of her classmates, Tanaka, actually accused Aya of cheating on her exam just because she got a higher score than him and could not accept that fact.
Max is very aggressive in his investigation, sometimes to an unlikable degree. It’s clear everyone wants him to go away, but Max will exploit vulnerabilities and threaten them to get the truth he wants when friendly requests doesn’t work. There are times his methods become questionable, but as the secrets get exposed, the root of the letter multiplies into a desperate series of lies that need to be exposed.
There is an idyllic perception of high school that some mediums like to portray. Root Letter doesn’t do that. At its core, Root Letter is a tale about disappointment. As these adults look back on their younger years together, we see that most of them pursued ambitions that slipped beyond their grasp. Riko Sasaki wasn’t able to fulfill her dream of becoming a famous star, just as Monkey was denied a chance to make it as a professional baseball player. Seeing how resentment has warped each of them is one of the saddest parts of the game, but also one of the most authentic. I felt Aya’s loneliness as she tried to paint a crafted picture of her daily life through her letters to Max, justifying her personal pain and excusing the inexcusable. Both of them found more solace in writing to their pen pals than they did spending time with their classmates whom they saw on a daily basis.
The Seven Delicacies of Matsue
The developers spent a year doing field research, and it shows. The city of Matsue is portrayed beautifully. You jump from museum to castle to shopping areas and even a UFO research center. It reminded me so much of my trip to Japan two years ago, especially when I visited Shizuoka (literally, “silent hill”) and got to absorb in many of the local sights. In Root Letter, you get to eat the seven delicacies of the Matsue, all of which look really tasty.
There’s a very memorable cast of side characters like Kogumo Izumi, who owns a second-hand bookstore and shows up at the hot springs at inopportune times; a very strange ghost historian called Rei Kurai who moves around like a spirit himself; and Yuka Fukui, the assistant chef at a local bakery who is concerned about the well-being of her fiance, who’s embroiled in the whole mess.
The slower pace of the game made exploration meditative: have a drink at a bar, soak in the warmth of a hot spring, take a boat tour in the “Water City” to watch the sunset, relish desserts at a local pastry shop. Even if the adventure was mostly linear, I liked the methodical progression of the investigation, even as things got more and more sinister.
You eventually learn that Aya Fumino really did die long ago. The woman you think is Aya is someone different, though her exact identity shifts based on the ending you get. I liked the original one best, where there’s no resolution and, instead, everyone is locked into the bad choices they made. Life goes on in Matsue, each of the characters grinding their way through their daily lives, enduring their disappointments in their own ways. Max never gets to connect with his real pen pal, since she’s left for another country. He returns to Tokyo and, in the last scene, he receives a new letter from her. Do they continue to write to each other? Do they ever meet up? I liked how it left that up in the air. There are other endings, including one in which you actually end up meeting and marrying your pen pal, and another one that incorporates more spiritual elements.
Shortly after finishing Root Letter, I got to wondering what the future of books will be like. Will static books go the way of letters? Will visual novels like this, where you can interact and be part of the literary experience in a really immersive way, supersede the traditional book, just as email has widely replaced physical letters?
While I don’t have the answers, one thing I do know. I plan on sending people more actual letters. Hopefully, no ghosts from my past reply.
I bought the original PlayStation just so I could play Final Fantasy VII. Until then, all I’d had was a SNES and a Genesis, so I was in awe when the opening cutscene for FFVII began.The rest of the game was equally stunning, the visuals beyond anything I’d thought possible in a game. I couldn’t wait to find out more about this “SOLDIER” named Cloud who was fighting to save the planet while suffering from PTSD that had fractured his psyche.
I played through Final Fantasy VII again last year, wondering if nostalgia had clouded my memory of it. I was happy that it was as good as I remembered. I enjoyed it all the more since I was playing through it with my wife who got to experience it for the first time. With the remake almost here, I thought about what I’m most looking forward to re-experiencing from the original using current-gen tech.
Midgar In HD
A steampunk dystopian city run by the conglomerate Shinra Corps, Midgar remains arguably the most memorable city in the Final Fantasy franchise. I don’t think any other single location in the series was this fleshed out or has this much personality. You spend the majority of the first act within its vast Mako Reactor nexus, traveling from one sector to the next and meeting its many inhabitants. This includes the corrupt soldiers hanging around the decadent Wall Market with its red light district run by Don Corneo, to the impoverished citizens forced to stay underneath in the slums where the seedy underbelly of Midgar thrives. There’s the train graveyard and the trains themselves that connect the massive capital city.
Climbing Shinra Headquarters is in Sector 0 remains one of the most tense, and haunting sequences in the game. Finding that trail of blood from the victims of Sephiroth’s killing rampage was terrifying. I’m looking forward to exploring Midgar all over again in full 3D with a new vantage point rather than the prerendered glory of the first.
More About Zack
Crisis Core, released in 2007 for the PSP, is one of the most underrated games in the series. It’s a moving story about Zack, Cloud’s best friend and mentor, that reveals more about the tragedy that serves as the backdrop for Final Fantasy VII. There are flashbacks to Zack in the original and much of Cloud’s memories are mixed up with what he witnessed of Zack’s journey. I’ve long wanted a remaster of Crisis Core for modern consoles. If the developers could incorporate some more about his story into the remake, I’d be all aboard.
The Fate Of Aeris
My wife yelled at Cloud during Aerith’s death. “Why are you just standing there? Do something!” I know Aerith’s fate has been discussed a million times before, for good reason: It was, and is still considered to be, one of the most shocking moments in gaming history. To go along with all the discussions about her death were the rumored cheats on how to actually save Aerith.
This is going to be a controversial opinion, but it’d be amazing if that alternative became a reality for the remake so you can save Aerith and have her accompany your party for the remainder of the trip. This would really change the flow of the entire game and give it a different identity as well. Am I the only one who has wondered at the significance of the game opening and closing on almost the same shot of Aerith? It made me wonder if Final Fantasy VII had really been Aerith’s story all along.
I’ve loved chocobos since I first came across them in Final Fantasy IV. I liked chocobo racing at the Gold Saucer in FFVII, which was a trippy array of color beams on laser-lit roads. I admit, I spent way too much time raising a Golden Chocobo just so I could get the Knights of the Round summon (and given how powerful the summon was, it was totally worth it). I’m looking forward to experiencing chocobo racing all over again in high-res and hopefully having some multiplayer matches against some of my friends.
Tangential to the racing, I have fond memories of going to the Gold Saucer and experiencing date night. Aerith accompanied me the first time. The last time I played through, I got Barrett, and we had an enjoyable, if somewhat quiet, evening watching fireworks. He got irritated towards the end of the night, though, and wished he was hanging out with his daughter, Marlene, not Cloud. Kweh!
The summons in FFVII are breathtaking, and that was just with PlayStation 1-era graphics. Seeing the Astral deities in FFXV were unbelievable, so I’m excited about FFVII’s summons, from Bahamut Zero to Alexander, and of course the previously mentioned Knights.
Last year, I wrote a piece about how the whole Cosmo Canyon sequence is a meditation on family, sacrifice, and existence itself. In it, Red XIII (who my wife renamed KittyLion) comes to terms with his father’s past actions while getting a lesson on courage and what exactly is at stake in Final Fantasy VII. It’s about more than just Sephiroth: There’s themes about the planet, the stream of life, and the cycles that connect all of us.
As I wrote then: “I found these environmental themes especially poignant knowing Hironobu Sakaguchi explored the ideas of the Lifestream following the death of his mother. He channeled much of his sorrow into these concepts and while others would take over development of FFVII, that sense of tragedy and yearning pervades throughout the entire game.”
Temple of the Ancients
I’d forgotten how creepy and mystical the temple was. Aerith begins remembering her past, which is as convoluted and confusing as the series of M.C. Escher-style Penrose stairs within. Sephiroth describes it as “a lost treasure house of knowledge. The wisdom of the ancients.” The clock puzzle was as esoteric as the labyrinth. Your party discovers a whole wall covered with paintings depicting the summoning of Meteor. Had it happened before?
Junon Canon Battle With Weapon
I remember when Cloud’s mind gets seized by Sephiroth and he begins to wonder if he’s just a clone. I remember Tifa waking up inside Junon after being taken captive by Shinra, then looking out the window. I remember seeing Meteor blazing crimson in the sky, ominously preparing to wreak devastation. I remember feeling utterly hopeless. I remember Tifa and Barrett being taken to be executed and blamed for all that’s happened.
I remember being told a monster called Weapon was on a rampage, and the massive defensive effort by Rufus and the troops that followed. I remember the Junon cannon blasting Weapon, but having no effect with its first shot. I remember Weapon accelerating its attack and soldiers unleashing their entire arsenal. I remember Tifa jumping off the edge of the cannon, only to be rescued by the airship Highwind. I remember being in awe of what was the greatest battle I’d seen in a game up until that point.
Say what you might about the 2005 movie Advent Children, but that final battle with Kadaj/Sephiroth was amazing. The new combat system for FFVII showcased at E3 looks like it has a lot of potential, especially since my favorite part of Final FantasyXV was the battles. I’d love a multi-tiered battle with Sephiroth fighting for the fate of Gaia deep within the Planet’s Core (which in itself is a pretty good final dungeon). Seeing him launch Supernova against the party will be awesome. My only condition is they have somehow have to include the victory fanfare, which, like many other things, is my favorite in the series.
Honestly, I’m excited about the remake, but at the same time, have to remind myself that the game will be different from the original. The main thing I hope for is that I can feel the same sense of awe I did way back when I opened the PS1 for the first time and popped in the first of the three CDs.