Over the last two weeks the excellent people at Final Fantasy Union graciously hosted a two-part case study I wrote, comparing the Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda franchises in terms of game design and narrative, dissecting each franchise’s approach to gameplay and story to see what each could learn from the other. If you missed these articles, you can read them here:
(Final Fantasy Union is an excellent source for news on the franchise. In addition to their great monthly podcast and up-to-the-minute coverage, Lauren and Darryl have recently been interviewing the entire English cast of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. Check out their site!)
I found this article very interesting to produce, from the original concept back in March to its publication this month. I cut my teeth on both franchises back on the NES; I took more to FF, but spent a lot of time with LOZ and its sequel as well. Since then I’ve devoured the entire main line of FF games and soaked up a lot of the Zelda series (Hyrule Warriors on Wii U has kept me enthralled since its launch, which is the longest I’ve played one game reliably in… ever).
The more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued by the difference in their approaches. I love the limit-breaking, nihilistic, brooding themes of FF; ambition is one of the series’ strongest traits, but I began to realize it was a downfall as well. Each game gambles, in a way. For example, Cloud’s broken psyche is a hallmark of the most popular game in the series, but the same trait didn’t necessarily score a win for Squall and Lightning to follow. Each game tries a lot of new ideas, which keeps things fresh and innovative, but ultimately each game has more to prove and lose.
I claim in the article that Legend of Zelda can be a little less inventive and more formulaic in some ways; I know this is a very broad stroke and reductionist, but I feel justified in making it. Most of the core games can be boiled down to the same general story arc (excluding black sheep like Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask). And yet, despite the slightly predictable trajectory, I feel the series has an impeccable reputation far and above Final Fantasy‘s. Perhaps fans know what to expect (is anyone ever truly surprised when Ganondorf is involved? Excluding Skyward Sword‘s implications, that is), but they eat it up gladly and come back for more.
(Calling the series “more formulaic” tends to sound like a bad thing, but somehow Nintendo has turned this trait into a strength. That the series can be so fresh and enthralling to so many while staying relatively close to its predecessors is truly an impressive feat. So many other franchises attempt to do this and fail horribly in the current market.)
Final Fantasy certainly has more to learn from Zelda than vice versa. Both embrace their legacies, but I feel the former does so predominately in an aesthetic way – throw in some visual callbacks, recycle some weapon names, and call it nostalgia. I want to keep seeing innovation, but in a more familiar way, if that makes sense – License boards and Paradigm Shifts are cool and all, but what was wrong with the Job System approach? Couldn’t Jobs have been used as a coat of paint on top of these new innovations? Look at Final Fantasy X-2: its Dresspheres were just Jobs in a (fairly sexist) disguise. In keeping with the “girl power” theme Square called a spade a club, and perhaps lost a chunk of its audience in the process.
And think about it: could Square-Enix make a silent protagonist as compelling and charming as Link?
Speaking of “the link” between player and game, Nintendo could learn the most from Square in this regard. Link is supposed to be our avatar in Hyrule, the connection/link between us and the virtual world – and yet we have very little connection to him. He’s a blank, silent state for us to impose our thoughts upon, sure, but this approach worked better in prior technological eras, when we didn’t have sophisticated means of bringing him to life. I don’t mean to suggest we should be able to customize his entire appearance, or that he should be fully voiced, but it would be fantastic if we could influence him a little bit. A system for influencing Link’s emotions and reactions, for instance. As I mention in the case study, he has a terrible fate or tremendous responsibility dropped on his shoulders but he never bats an eye. It’s a part of why I feel the games are formulaic: the wise sage tells Link he’s the Hero, Link (silently) says “k,” and off he goes with little more than the occasional tear.
Fans are clamouring now for a gender reversal – female Link, male Zelda, or some variation thereof. There have been some awesome propositions for how this might work. I want to see Link fail instead. Maybe he fails early on, either losing his life or being captured by Ganondorf/villain-du-jour as a consequence, and it’s up to Zelda to become the Hero. (Maybe her amazing representation in Hyrule Warriors is twisting my arm on this one, but man, would I love to play a proper game in the franchise where she explores Hyrule with rapier, baton, and rod.)
Both games do so much right; I really believe their flaws are greatly overshadowed by their strengths. But both franchises are nearly thirty years old, and it seems they need to mind their pasts and futures in good proportion.
Today’s post is over at Final Fantasy Union – a piece on why Square-Enix should stop dragging their heels and bring their new 3DS game Final Fantasy Explorers to English audiences.
Never heard of Explorers? Take the classic Final Fantasy formula and apply it to Monster Hunter – then season it with allusions and tributes to the series’ history, and you have this Japan-exclusive.
Check out the trailer below, then head over to Final Fantasy Union to read my article. While you’re there, check out their podcast – which just celebrated its hundredth episode!
Last week Nintendo finally announced the North American and European release of their updated New 3DS system, alongside the hotly-anticipated remake of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and a host of other first-party titles. Maybe this news has finally convinced you to check out the handheld, or perhaps dust off that system you got years ago; or maybe you’re a StreetPass warrior like me who takes their Ambassador 3DS everywhere. Whatever the case may be, the 3DS has a great catalogue of titles worthy of your time – and if you’re wondering where to start, or if you’ve missed the best experiences it has to offer, I’m here to help.
Honorable Mention: Super Mario 3D Land (2011)
Can you imagine a Nintendo console without a main Mario title? These are mandatory experiences – you can’t own a NES without Super Mario Bros, a SNES without Super Mario World, etc. I can’t necessarily claim these are the absolute best experiences on their respective consoles in every case, but the fact remains that each Nintendo system has a Mario game worth at least a chunk of your time. In the case of the 3DS, Super Mario 3D Land is the one to try, superior to its followup, New Super Mario Bros 2 and its coin gimmick. 3D Land includes all the best features of the franchise and a lot of depth for completionists and perfectionists alike.
Honourable Mention: StreetPass Plaza (2011)
This built-in feature from day one is simultaneously six games in one, and yet not a full game in its own right. It’s a glorified encouragement to carry your 3DS when you go out and about, to activate StreetPass and anonymously tag strangers without any effort. It offers two mini-games (and four others you can purchase), all of which take only a couple minutes to enjoy. StreetPass is a great way to spread some good karma and have a little fun – and it’s built-in to the system, so you might as well give it a try.
5) Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2013)
I’ve played every AC game since the GameCube original and I still struggle to define its concept or its appeal. On one level, it’s a life sim (or a debt sim, depending on your outlook): you move to a new city populated by anthropomorphic animals and are gently pushed to do certain mindless tasks to earn money to buy new items or repay your mortgage. New Leaf takes a better approach to the formula than its Wii predecessor, City Folk – this time you are made mayor of your new hometown (a fitting decision, since in previous games you do more to improve your town than the actual mayor). This brings a handful of new features that enhance the core gameplay instead of detracting from it.
This is perhaps the finest iteration of the franchise since the original. It adds new features that enhance the game in a way the other sequels didn’t – it makes gameplay more intuitive like Wild World (DS), and incorporates a retail district to every town in a more organic way than City Folk. Animal Crossing is truly at home on a portable system, since it’s so dependent on daily gameplay.
And yet, I still struggle to encapsulate what makes the game so fun. It would be easy to see the game’s tasks as menial and pointless – doing a host of chores daily, fishing, interacting with villagers that possess one of a small handful of personalities, collecting items, repaying massive debts on virtual homes… A pessimist could have a field day decrying the shallowness of the gameplay. But if you visit your town daily and sink 30-60 minutes into the game, you’ll be surprised by how much fun you can have. Suffice it to say: I got the game when it launched in June 2013, and didn’t miss a single day until October, when Pokemon X/Y came out.
4) Bravely Default (2014)
It may not be printed on the box, but this is a Final Fantasy game in every way. You’ll recognize the class system, the item names, and a host of other features, especially if you’ve played early FF games. In what I deem one of their biggest flubs in recent history, Square-Enix opted not to call Bravely Default a proper Final Fantasy game, but this did nothing to detract from its success.
Bravely Default is a more traditional JRPG – in my opinion, the best of its ilk on the platform, if not the best made in the past five years. You take your four-person party from city to dungeon to city, gaining experience and improving your items to progress further in the story. You know what to expect from the genre and Default delivers, but it doesn’t toe the line of cliche and unoriginality. Its story and gameplay throw enough curveballs at you to reinvigorate the genre standard, and man, is it ever a challenge sometimes.
Instead of simply selecting “Attack” or “Magic” from the battle menu, you need to make more tactical decisions using its Brave Point system – each action requires a certain amount of stockpiled BP to perform. You can unleash that big attack that costs 4BP on your first turn in battle, but that character will be forced to stand idly by until they regenerate back to 1BP; or you can stockpile from turn one by defending, and unleash hell on turn four. It’s a simple system that brings a lot of depth and tactical thinking – you need to budget your actions in battle as much as you need to plan your party outside of battle.
There’s also a host of features utilizing the hardware. You can call in your friends from the system proper or from StreetPass to help you out in battle, or even impart abilities on your party. For example, if you StreetPass with me early in your game, your Agnes will be able to borrow abilities from my much stronger version of Agnes from later in the game – and if you really get stuck in a nasty boss battle, you can tag me in for one particularly useful ability.
3) Resident Evil: Revelations (2012)
As Bravely Default was a reinvigoration for Square-Enix and Final Fantasy, Revelations is a much-needed return to form for the Resident Evil series. A lot of fans, myself included, have been turned off by its recent deviations from the classic survival-horror formula of dark environments and dwindling supplies. Revelations brings all that back, minus the traditional zombies, and provides perhaps the most true Resident Evil experience since RE3: Nemesis.
You play as classic characters Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, along with a couple of newcomers who fit the franchise well, and explore a boat drifting at sea while fighting off the bizarre creatures who have overrun it. The enemies are zombie-like but unique, a nice return to form without recycling old ideas to death (or risking racial insensitivity like RE5). I was having flashbacks to RE2 and RE3 as I backtracked and scoured for ammo.
Granted, Revelations has since been ported to PS3, 360, and Wii U, but I think it works best on its original platform – the smaller screen enhances the sense of claustrophobia, and the optional gyroscopic features are natural with the handheld. And then there’s the StreetPass features, which provide unique missions in familiar environments and reward you with better items.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how awesome it is to move and shoot in a Resident Evil game. It’s a little wooden because Resident Evil, but my god, it was such a thrill to experience that for the first time.
2) Fire Emblem: Awakening (2013)
Fire Emblem is perhaps the most under-utilized of Nintendo’s under-utilized franchises – like Metroid and F-Zero, it wasn’t brought to North America at all until the Game Boy Advance era, and thus most fans in the region had only been exposed to it via Marth’s inclusion in the Smash Bros games.
Awakening was perhaps the highest profile game in the series prior to its release, and was a tremendous success for the platform. It’s the same proven gameplay the series has boasted since the NES with modern sensibilities like flashy combat animations (which can be disabled or fast-forwarded, thankfully), and a deeper customization system. Its story may be a little derivative from other JRPGs or animes, but its the gameplay that will keep you truly enthralled.
I’ve rarely had this much fun pouring so much effort into training and retrainiing. Each unit is essentially a blank slate for you to paint as you please with enough proper training and a touch of breeding. You can pair certain party members and built their relationships until they wed and you earn a child unit with the best of their parents’ abilities – in fact, I could describe my party-planning process for my third playthrough as little more than eugenics, picking the perfect partner for each unit until I had a team of uber-powered super-soldiers.
Like many, Awakening was my first experience with the franchise, having missed the installments on GBA, DS, GameCube, and Wii, and it inspired me to see what I’ve missed – and yet I can’t bring myself to try the others, as Awakening’s features are so awesome that I can’t imagine playing the series without them. Things like the enhanced partnership system, which allows you to pair two units together for mutual stat boosts, or the Casual game mode where units don’t die forever. One of Fire Emblem’s hallmarks has always been permadeath – if your best archer falls in battle, it’s gone forever. Awakening is one of the first instalments to offer a bit of mercy on this front, and without it I couldn’t personally enjoy the game fully. I tried Classic and was punished too harshly to continue, but this may float your boat. Regardless, Awakening is an excellent strategy RPG with a ton of replayability and depth, well worth your time.
1) Pokemon X/Y (2013) or Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire (2014)
The eternal quest to catch ’em all continues on the 3DS in fine form. This is one of my guilty pleasure franchises, and I have to say, these are the finest entries in the series.
First, a note on the different games: X and Y are the proper main games of the series’ Generation VI, introducing a new batch of collectible monsters in a brand new region. ORAS, however, is a remake of the Gen III main games, Ruby and Sapphire, taking place in a familiar region but with all the modern features. I recommend playing XY first, as ORAS refines some of the new 3DS functionality, and I personally prefer the Y and Omega Ruby installments.
Anyway. You know what to expect from a Pokemon game by now – you play a young person who embarks on a quest to see the world, catalogue its indigenous creatures, thwart the plans of a cliche evil group, and become the champion of the region’s Pokemon League. Storywise, neither game is doing much to shake up the formula – you’re still limited to your region, your enemies are still incompetent, you’re still going to encounter the legendary monster depicted on the game’s box. The same checkboxes are going to be checked.
What the game attempts instead is a shake-up of that checklist, especially in ORAS. You aren’t pushed as heavily to take on the Pokemon League; in a way, the story becomes open-ended once you best the Legendary creature, and the NPCs tell you you’re free to do what you want from there on – “do contests, take on the championship, fill your Pokedex, do whatever you want, see if we care.” Of course you haven’t truly beaten the game until you beat the League and then complete the epilogue chapter, Delta Episode, but for once you’re given a sense of freedom, even if it is illusionary.
For the first time in the main series, battles take place in full 3D – a feature formerly reserved for spin-off console games like Stadium. It’s hard to go back to even the most recent games like Gen V’s Black 2 after this jump forward. Speaking of 3D, the games make smart use of the hardware’s potential. Only battles and certain special environments are rendered in full 3D, if you have it activated at all, reducing the battery drain. It’s a smart decision and a nice touch.
Both games make full use of the 3DS’ hardware, except for the cameras, which are shoehorned in to a sub-feature within the StreetPass functionality. The dual screens are utilized well (even if they lack a bloody clock in the corner) – organizing your party and your storage boxes has never been more efficient thanks to the proper incorporation of the touch screen. Online features are a couple of touches away – no more need to boot the game up with these shortcuts activated as in Gen V, or to scurry back to a Pokemon Center anytime your friend wants to trade as in the first four generations, or travel to a certain location to use the Global Trade System. Special “apps” make training your party’s potential or bonding with your little monsters easier than ever, and ORAS adds handy tools for navigating or for collecting all the Pokemon in your current location. Your top screen is all spectacle, and the bottom screen is all utility – it’s a perfect synergy between hardware potential and fun gameplay.
If there’s one feature criminally underused, it’s StreetPass. I expected being able to battle with people you pass, or at least being able to see what those people are using in their parties. Instead you get practically nothing but an additional form of currency with a horrible redemption rate for certain useful and rare items. So many games make such smart use of this cornerstone feature, it’s disappointing to see it reduced to so little in Nintendo’s most lucrative franchise.
Series veterans can, with the use of two separate apps from the eShop, transfer their banked creatures from the previous generations to the modern era. Some will even be updated to the brand new element/type, Fairy, which has done a lot to redefine the core gameplay – a long overdue rebalancing of the type matchups that gives some underused types more use and another overused type a big counter. Another franchise-rattling addition is the Mega Evolution system. Certain fully-evolved Pokemon, after a certain point in the story, can hold special species-specific items to “mega evolve” during battle, for the duration of that battle, into a new super-powered form. For some species, this opens up entirely new strategies, and for others it enriches current approaches. If nothing else, it’s a flashy new touch and a shakeup of existing formulas – many fans have long called for new evolutions of these established creatures, or for a “fourth evolution” level, and Mega Evolutions provides this without totally revising the franchise’s history.
There are many games that either offer a great experience or make full use of the hardware’s potential, and both Pokemon pairs do both exceptionally.
And really, this is just the cream of the crop, in my opinion. There’s a host of other options, from Nintendo staples like Zelda (including an original title and a Ocarina of Time remake, plus Majora’s Mask next month) and Kid Icarus to third-party gems like Kingdom Hearts. Whether you’re jumping on the bandwagon with the New 3DS or hopping back on, there’s a wealth of great experiences waiting for you on this platform. Few systems today can offer so many deep experiences and quality, unique titles in one place.
And for the record, here’s a taste of my most played titles: