Inside Pulse 12

Retro-Grading 12.21.02

Right. Welcome to Retrograding. I’m your host, Alexander Lucard. You may make the token Hellsing, Castlevania or random dyslexic Dracula joke now. I’ve heard them all growing up. :-P

Retrograding is hopefully going to be something new here at 411mania.com. Where the other writers are looking at the current gaming situation, doing reviews of the latest games, and generally keeping our readers abreast of the latest and greatest, I’m going to be here to remind you all that sometimes newer isn’t better. I’ll also be doing to UK and Japanese gaming news, but hey, I live in the former and spend a lot of time in the latter so hopefully I can bring you things outside of North America you weren’t previously aware of. My attempt with this column is to get you to blow dust of your old systems, hunt down some great old games and imports, and have some fun with things you probably didn’t even know existed.

Anyway, I’m pretty damn sure this first column’s title alone is going to flood my inbox with controversy and angry Squaresoft fanatics. So let’s get the following out of the way.

Final Fantasy is arguably the most popular RPG in Europe and America. That’s because Western Gamers as a whole focus on graphics as the be all and end all of games. This is by no means true in Japan, where gamers prefer stories, quality engines, and replayability. That’s why Final Fantasy is usually in the top ten of RPG’s in Japan, but rarely holds the #1 spot. Pokemon, Dragon Quest, megaten and a few others sometimes overshadow it on that side of the Pacific

Now don’t get me wrong. FF has done a lot for RPG’s in general. It’s the game that made the genre accessible to the casual fan, where before only action RPG’s like Zelda had been before. I wouldn’t personally count the LoZ franchise as action RPG’ing, as I consider it Action-adventure personally, but there you go. Before that video RPG’s were associated with pen and paper RPG’s and the kids who spent all their free time in the cafeteria missing saving throws and playing Battletech while ignoring their hygiene and ability to socialize without using the word “Kender” as an insult. Thankfully very few of those people exist outside the steriotype set forth for that style of role-playing, but they do give gamers a bad name, whether it be dice or Electronic. FF also managed to blow a lot of people away with it’s excellent (albeit it sometimes insanely too long and repetitive) FMV’s and graphics.

In the end FF has been far more about style than innovation or substance. Final Fantasy opened up RPG’s to the casual gamer, and in truth, that’s always been their market. Not hardcore video game fans, as they tend to be part of the “FF sucks” crowd. Not people who generally have RPG’s as their main choice for video games, but people who know little about the genre and are looking for something that’s pretty, that’s easy and that’s quite honestly, shallow.

Yes, yes, someone’s going to come on and say how great FF3 (FF6 in Japan) was in terms of plot. But everyone I knew growing up that would later to have the stigma of “hardcore gamer” attached to their name HATED it. That doesn’t make them any more right or wrong that FF fanboys or fangirls, but it shows that there’s a distinct divide between the type of gamer who seems to want the latest J-RPG the second it hits stores in Tokyo and people who have no idea that FF3 is FF6 in Japan. I was still pretty young, and the dialog was badly translated, the gameplay was like every other Final Fantasy and the plot was so weak I had worked out the entire plot after 3 hours of playing. It wasn’t that good in any way shape or form, especially compared to the other games that were out there at the time, namely Shining Force, Shadowrun, and Chrono Trigger.

Look how the plot has been the same for nearly every FF game. You have a rebellious young Turk who is swept into meeting his destiny as saviour of the world while some horrible Victor Von Doom Wannabe tries to engage in his Megalomania. Snore. Square’s always been bashed for the FF plots in Japan, and Americans FINALLY started to realise FF plots were cheap and boring with the FF movie. Unlike a video game, plot is rather important to a good film, and “The Spirits Within” tanked as quickly as Carrottop’s movie. That’s very sad.

Again, Final Fantasy is a good series. It’s a popular series. But it’s not great by any stretch of the imagination. I ran through with a few other gamers and we came up with over two dozen RPG series that are better than FF in every way under the sun. And it’s my hopes to get casual gamers and people new to gaming in general to try and find some of these other series and enjoy some real role playing ecstasy.

First up, in order to make the list, it has to be a real rpg, not an action one. So I sadly had to get rid of Square’s excellent “Mana” series (See, this isn’t an anti-Square column. I LOVE Mana). Second, there has to be at least a sequel. So Valkyrie Profile (In my opinion, the greatest RPG ever, also made by the company that ate Squaresoft up BTW) was out too. The game system had to be relatively the same from game to game as well which meant the Chrono series and Koudelka/Shadow Hearts was not eligible for the list either. Finally, the series had to have a game on more than one console, which cut out some classics like Arc the Lad, Paper Mario, Star Ocean, and so on.

Before I start the list I do want to give Honourable mention to Earthbound, Slayers Royal, Fallout, Thousand Arms, the Bard’s Tale, and Ultima. Great games that make the FF series look horrible (except for graphics), but just couldn’t make the list. Oh! And Panzer Dragoon Saga. How can one not worship that game? So let’s do this. Remember, this is opinion of one person, not gospel. Feel free to utterly disagree with every opinion I espouse here. It’s video gaming – it shouldn’t be serious business.

10. The SSI Dungeon and Dragon Series

Okay, this is partially on here because the remake of Eye of the Beholder is now out for the GBA, and it rekindled a lot of love and nostalgia in me for the Gold Box games of yore. But it’s also on here because the series started on the old floppy disks of IBM and Apple computers and worked it’s way onto the Sega Genesis, the Sega CD, the SNES, and created a huge empire for SSI and TSR. Now WotC owns D&D, but the series has come full circle with Myth Drannor on PC. Which was once again done by SSI (albeit it not very good).

This series is on here for many reasons. The first is customization of characters. You could (and still can on GBA) totally create your characters from scratch. You want a Half Orc Thief? You got it. You want a growling Dwarven mage? Bingo. You want to rip off Lord Soth’s crusty undead arms and turn them into Banjos for your own version of Dragonlance Deliverance? Well, you can’t do that one, but if only you could.

The graphics were amazing for their day, and gave you some real time combat scenarios and also were realistic to a fault with the original Eye of the Beholder forcing your characters to eat food or starve to death. The series branched from Forgotten Realms’ Beholder, to Krynn’s Dragonlance, to even an occasional foray into Ravenloft. And the plots were always well crafted and dialog was never wooden or forced. It was written like fantasy characters talk. And often times, a lot of video game dialog when translated into English is stiff and wooden.

Again, as this series has a new game out for the GBA, I implore you to pick up Eye of the Beholder and experience the best Dungeon crawl game ever made. It’s updated for Third Edition rules and the puzzles are still well done. It’s a bit more tactical in gameplay than the original, but the core is still there and will hopefully remind you why everyone loved the D&D video games, even if you weren’t a pen and paper fan.

9. Grandia

The Sega Saturn. No matter what some people may say, it gave us some of the best games ever made, and thus by default is my most favorite system ever. What’s considered the best shooting game ever? Radiant Silvergun…or the Sega Saturn. What’s the best Action RPG ever made? Guardian Heroes…for the Sega Saturn. What’s the best Castlevania game? The Sega Saturn’s version of SotN. With that, here’s another game that wouldn’t be possible without the Saturn.

Grandia, whose ports to the PSX and the sequel’s port to the PS2 are well known to be inferior to the original Saturn and DC versions. That’s not a Sony bash or Sega praise, it’s the difference in the hardware. Grandia was designed perfectly for Sega systems, and things are lost in the translation. Grandia has a battle system that is simply original and defies description with its simplicity. You use a power or weapon; you get better at just that. Sure you gain levels, but if you never use fire magic, you never get the powerful fire spells. Whereas in a lot of RPG’s you can get powerful spells without using the lower version of them. The turned based battle systems and graphics are amazing and have always been superior to the FF games that were widely available at the time. The story and dialog are brilliant, with clever twists on the same generic plot FF rehashes in all their games.

What is best about Grandia games is the characterization. They are flawed. They are human. They aren’t all-powerful perfections doing noble deeds for the sake of good and light and on and on and on. They’re quirky, funny, tragic, and characters you can identify with. How many people REALLY went, “Boy I know characters like Sepiroth in real life. Tons of them.” Characters need some grounding in reality or people can’t relate to them. And Grandia does that with its villains and heroes.

This is the beginning of games that really are better than FF in every way. Better graphics, no random battles, customizable characters, a gripping plot, decent characters, and on and on and on. If you own a PS2 or your PX, get one of these games while you still can. I’d prefer you pick up the Saturn/DC versions, but I’ll take what I can get.

8. The Ogre Series

Ah yes. You FF fans remember when you jized yourselves over Final Fantasy Tactics? Well, there’s a big surprise in store for some of you. See, it wasn’t Square that made that game. Knowing that FF was about glitz over substance, they hired the team of Ogre Tactics and got them to make a FF version of the game. Guess what happened when the totally 100% superior Ogre Tactics’ GBA version came out in May? People were on message boards saying how OT was a cheap rip-off off FFT. Arrrgh.

Ogre Battle/Tactics is a long running series from the days of 16-bit joy. It’s found it’s way to the GBA, to the Saturn, to the PSX, amazingly enough to the n64. The games are highly sought after on Ebay and have always hooked people in with their gripping plots, incredible battle engines and levels of strategy so high that you actually learn from this game. Of course, you learn how best to flank dragons with archers, mages and liches, but hey, you still walk away with an AA in war tactics.

The problem is that unlike glitz FF games, the graphics are rather tame and haven’t really evolved from SNES days. But the plots are by fare the most mature in RPG’s out there and people who look past the outdated graphics are rewarded with a story, an engine and history so deep you’d assume this level of quality could only come from Human or SNK.

Again, you can get these games from older systems, or a brand new one for the GBA. Pick it up and you won’t be able to put it down.

7. POKEMON

Yep. I can see the hate mail now. Thankfully, I can also see a majority of people who eat, breath and sleep RPG’s screaming at me that this isn’t higher. Much higher. Pokemon basically went and did everything Final fantasy did in regards to appealing to the mainstream, and then kicked it’s ass hundreds of times over. It’s more popular, it sells better, it’s gotten an even larger portion of casual gamers into RPG’s, it has better stories (with the spin offs), better characters, customization, a level of challenge that really isn’t there in FF games (as player Vs players battles are the meat of the game once you’ve beaten it), better animated adventures, and has an unsurpassed level of replayability as there is no end to Pokemon. Oh, and the movies didn’t fail horribly.

So in truth, as sad as it may be for some of you to admit it, POKEMON is everything Square wanted Final Fantasy to be. But Pikachu’s more successful than a Chocobo any day. After all, electric types are strong against flying types. Ho ho ho.

Trust me on this. It may be cute, it may look for kids, and it may have theme music so obnoxious your fiancee threatens to hit you when you’re caught humming it, but this really is the franchise that all RPG’s hope to be. Over half the people who own Pokemon video games are over 17 so swallow your macho ego and preconceived notions that Pokemon is for kids, and admit Pokemon is one of the best video games ever made.

6. Dragon Quest

Okay, the Japanese are going to yell at me know for this being so low. My ex roommate Sam is going to laugh that I included this because she can tell you that I would swear repeatedly during DW7 with things like, “When will this damn game end? ENDENDEND” Dragon Quest, or Dragon Warrior as we know it in the States, is the best selling video game series ever in Japan. The graphics suck, but everything else in this series is well thought out and designed. Enix gave us a franchise of really long games that are worth their price tag. It has characters that are well written with puzzles that actually get harder as you go along in the game. The plots are always incredible and all of the games are insanely addicting. Who needs methadone do get you off smack when you can give an addict a PSX and DW7.

This is the franchise that actually launched RPG’s in America as a credible money making genre. Ironically it was because the game sold so poorly in America. Then Nintendo gave away copies of the game with a Nintendo Power Subscription. I can see long time gamers smiling with this memory. You got a free game with a magazine! Holy crap, why wouldn’t you subscribe? You put it in the old NES, and weeks later you were still playing it, and wishing you weren’t forced at the end to say that you love the princess. The game didn’t go over the top with the plot. You were a Knight who had to save a princess from an evil Dragon Mage. Cut and dry and very well done. If it weren’t for Dragon Warrior, none of you would have a copy of Final Fantasy I in English. This series may still look outdated graphically, but it’s one that you have to try. It’s out for the Game Boy and PSX, and is fairly easy to track down. If you like RPG’s in any way, you owe it to yourself to get this game.

Okay we’re approaching the top 5. And out of the 5, four are games so obscure or old and rare that if you’re a recent or casual gamer, you might not have heard of them. They are games that everyone should track down however, just to say one has played them.. Until you have played them, you can never, EEEEEEEVER claim that Final Fantasy is a great series, because you have yet to experience greatness in its true form.

5. Phantasy Star

The first truly big console RPG series. Had the Master System been bigger than the NES, this would probably be the largest and most popular RPG franchise of them all. A lot of you may only know the Phantasy Star Online games as your first exposure to this classic series, but trust me, PSO is nothing compared to what the Genesis, Game Gear, and Saturn had.

Phantasy Star had plots that defied description. They were well made, tugged at your heartstrings, and gave you characters you couldn’t help but care about. Remember Final Fantasy 7’s killing Aeris. Go get PS2 and see how that scene is done RIGHT by a game made over 5 years before FF7.

The battle system was intricate too. You had a first person view of combat, with a long list of techniques and skills your party could use. Characters came and went. They grew up and died and had families. And it was the first series to attempt some sort of continuity throughout the games. FF, Dragon Quest, and other RPG sequels that came out had different worlds, plots and everything. Phantasy Star kept villains, heroes, and things the same.

PS4 is the best of the series (again, this is all my OPINION), but I have a special place in my heart for Phantasy Star 2. I think most long time RPG’ers have that game listed as one of the best ever made, and better than any FF plot. Luckily for you, Sega has released the PS collection for the GBA. (Note this people: The GBA is the RPG system of the future and the way you’ll get REAL classic games). It has the first three Phantasy Stars and needs your support if PS4 is ever going to get a GBA treatment.

4. LUNAR

If this being in the top five surprises anyone, then shame on you. Lunar became a huge standard bearer for PRG’s way back when it was first released on the Sega CD.. Working Designs also did the one thing that was thought impossible back then, and that was make a US translation of a Japanese game BETTER than the original. Check sales figures people, The WD version sof the Lunar games for the SCD or PSX were imported with great demand by the Japanese, and strongly preferred over the Game Arts originals.

What makes Lunar so special is that, like Grandia, it’s simple and perfect in its simplicity. The heart of every Lunar game is a love story and becoming an adult. A theme that should resonate with everyone. Remember the crap that was FF8’s plot? Well, Square was trying to do a Lunar type game. And they failed. Miserably. Yes Lunar doesn’t have the best graphics, but it’s FMV’s and voice acting is better than anything Square has done. The battle system is classic, and once again characters, engines, and plot outdo a five minute guardian force summoning that can’t be skipped even though you have seen it hundreds of times.

It’s not even really worth getting into insane detail here. If you’re reading this column, you have to have experienced Lunar in some way. Just go and preorder the GBA version now. Hell, get the PSX versions as well.

3. SHINING FORCE

And I just heard a lot of 25+ gamers screaming “I miss Shining Force!” with that name. You see, let me tell you about a popular game made by Camelot that is out right now. It’s called Golden Sun, and everyone seems to love it. Well, take Golden Sun, give it a better battle system, a better plot, better graphics, two dozen more characters, Tactics style combat, customization, and put it on the Sega Genesis, CD, Game Gear and Saturn, ¦and you have Shining Force. Golden Sun is nothing but Shining Force lite, but I still bless Camelot for giving it to us.

To be honest Shining Force is Camelot’s greatest creation, and the second best RPG franchise ever put out by Sega. It was the game that gave us true tactics style combat, the collecting craze that Pokemon capitalized on, hidden endings, characters, mini games, and battle, and is really by far the RPG franchise that nearly everyone has fond memories of. Read some old GameFan, Dreamcast or even EGM magazines and people will scream for Shining Force. Seriously, if you even remotely enjoyed Golden Sun, get a Genesis and find these games. Shining Force 2 is the best Fantasy RPG ever made. No if ands or buts. Not Dragon Quest, not Final Fantasy, not even Panzer Dragoon Saga compares to this game. Hell, you can play as a vampire named Mr. Lemon. How insane is that?

Okay, obviously the last two games aren’t fantasy RPG’s. The #1 isn’t even available in English and #2 has only had a few games in the franchise released in English, and those are watered down versions of the Japanese ones. I realize that me giving two mostly Japanese only franchises the highest marks on this countdown probably smack of elitism, or an attempt to prove how “OMG HARDCORE” I am, but it’s not the case. They’re just my favorites. I don’t expect any of you reading this to learn Japanese just to go off what a total stranger recommends, but I do hope it does give you some idea of what has yet to make it to the US of A.

2. MEGATEN

90% of you have just said, “WTF”‘ while the other 10% are like “Alex is my new favorite video game writer.”

My favorite games in the series are from the Persona spinoff. Persona is heavily based in the works of HP Lovecraft, Jungian archetypes, and a crapload of folklore from around the world. The games revolve around philosophy and morality, reality and religion, and allow you customization beyond your wildest dreams.

Devil Summoner and its sequel Soul Hacker are only in Japanese because Sony was a nip too afraid to bring them over what with the titles and themes of using Demons to defeat an even greater evil. Of course, the system they were originally published on, the Sega Saturn wasn’t supported by Atlus very well in the US so that was out too.Persona made it here though. The first game, Revelations Persona allows you to pick a team of school kids who have to solve the riddle of what makes reality well, real. What is fiction? What is truth? Who are we when it comes down to it? Sadly a huge chunk of the game was removed (Snow Queen Quest) and a lot as edited, even down to a character’s design. Persona 2 takes the plot even further by giving you TWO versions of it: Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment. Both games are alternate versions of each other, but only EP has made it into English even though Atlus is bombarded with emails for an English IS. Go email them for me people. It needs to be released.

As well, Persona allows you over 100 different aspects of one’s self that you can summon. Most are characters or monsters from Mythology and legends. Other are demons, imps, and the like. Hell, you can even get Hastur the Unnameable, and have him duke it out with Nyarlathotep or Shub-Nigguarth in a battle of Lovecraftian Proportions. You can make friends with demons, and even talk, bribe, and dance your way out of fights. Each character is totally unique from the others in your party, and the Velvet Room operetta is hands down the best piece of music ever written for any video game.

Persona 2:Eternal Punishment is hands down the best RPG you can buy in the English language. It’s easily available for the PS1, and has replayability up the wazoo thanks to the “Rumours are reality” system that runs through the game. And like Pokemon, you keep playing even after the game has been beaten.

So let’s do #1.

SAKURA TAISEN

Honestly, as this is a very casual gamer site, I’m betting maybe a dozen of you have played this game. And out of you, maybe one or two of you speak/read enough Japanese to understand the game. And so this will be the most controversial thing on this list, simply because 99% of you will be unaware that the series even exists. Hopefully I can convey why I love it so much though.

It’s the turn of the 20th century. The world is controlled by steam instead of oil, and thus steampunk graphics and art are what you’ll find in this game. Somehow a tear reality occurs and demons have a portal to Earth. It’s up to a group of steam power Gundam like Mechs who harness psychic energy to defeat these creatures. The catch? Every one who can power the mechs are half a dozen women, some of whom have never fought before. You play the only male in the world with enough psy energy to power a mech. And you happen to be a lazy perverted member of the Japanese Army. Good luck world!

Now here’s where it gets cool. In order for the girls to do really good in combat, they need both their self-esteem and psychic powers harnessed to the max. You do that in two ways. The first involves making them into theatre stars, and the other is by convincing each of the girls that you’re in love with them and getting them to fall in love with you. The more they love you, the better they will do in combat.

Combat in SW is glorious. The closest I can describe it for American gamers is Vanguard Bandits. It’s Tactics style battles in giant robot mechs that can do a horde of different attacks depending on equipment and who is powering them. So you have a tactics/dating sim/steampunk/comedy musical RPG. And yes, the music is very very good. As are the graphics.

Sakura Taisen is Red Company’s brainchild, and its a huge cash cow for Sega back across the Pacific. Sakura Taisen at one time was as big as Sonic in Japan. It’s so big that the first two games were re-released on the Dreamcast, and all four games were released in a super special collector’s edition right before the Dreamcast died. Yes I won it. I’m sad like that. Sakura is so big that Nintendo specifically requested that the first game Sega made for their systems had to be a Sakura Taisen game. They wanted it more than Sonic. Seriously. It came out for the Game Boy, and is a faithful adapation of the first Saturn game. Sakura merchandising is huge in Japan, and the anime has even made it to America. SW was almost released over in English for the Dreamcast, but again, the DC died from bad business decisions and general all around stupidity. Check out old issues of DC magazine, videogames.com, and every other source of video game media in America. Ask the professionals about this series and you will get nearly all of them ranting about why the series needs to be brought over to America and how probably the biggest franchise in Japan to never hit US shores.

So there we are. Ten VG series that I feel are better than Final Fantasy. I probably have over a dozen more than I still would rank higher before I got to Final Fantasy. That’s just me though. I have never been able to get into that series and have a hard time understanding how it ever got to be huge. Again, this doesn’t make me right or better or my tastes more discerning. It just makes me different. It’s fine to agree. It’s fine to disagree. Feel free to drop emails at alexanderlucard@usa.net or look me up on AIM under Darquefyr. Don’t wet yourself if you disagree with me or give me profanity-laden messages. Be mature, and express yourself with proper grammar and logic. Give me a debate if you take issues with my opinions, not ranting gibberish.