Retrograding 02.21.04

#24 Phantasy Star 2
Release Date: 12/31/88
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Systems Released on: Sega Genesis, Sega Saturn, Sega Dreamcast, GBA

Okay. Let’s get it out first thing so I don’t have to harp on it time and time again. Those that worship FFVII’s pivotal plot point are simply those that have not played Phantasy Star. Why? Because the one big thing other than pretty anime boys people talk about in regards to FFVII is Sephiroth killing Aeris. That her death was unexpected and so tragic and boo hoo hoo. Before than was your completely lacking in substance Aeris who did nothing of merit to flesh out her personality, you had the character her second rate flower picking ass was based on: Nei.

Okay. That’s not true at all. Nei and Aeris have nothing in common. I just felt like pissing off Final Fantasy fanboys. The truth is that although people claim Aeris death is OH SO SHOCKING, it was done far better in Phantasy Star 2 with Nei in every way possible over Aeris’. Let’s compare.

Aeris just kind of stands there and gets killed. Nei dies fighting against her own parent to save not only her friends, but humanity as well.

Aeris has no real personality. She’s a two-dimensional “I’m so f*cking sweet that you’re somehow supposed to care about me, but as I don’t emote that’s damn impossible” character and nothing more. Nei emotes through the whole game running a gambit of emotions from loving Rolf to self-loathing. She cries, she giggles. She lives and breaths. She is remember 15 years after her debut with love and nostalgia from all those that played the game.

Aeris is remembered for her death, Nei is remembered for her life AND death. So anyone who truly felt touched or some sort of emotion from FF7, I beseech you to go out and get Phantasy Star 2 and see a character’s sacrifice done right a full decade before FF7 came out.

And now that I got a massive amount of Final Fantasy annoyance out of my system, I can start to talk about what makes Phantasy Star 2 one of the greatest games ever made.

It’s 1989. And Sega unleashes a game that has 6 MEGS of memory. Although that is nothing today, back then it was mind blowing to think of a game that big. And top it off, one had to travel through two planets and more dungeons and battles that even games of today contain! Sure it had a 70 dollar price tag, but in that hard plastic contained lay a game that took 60 hours to beat and was the hardest game ever made up to that point, no small feat when you consider how insanely hard the original Phantasy Star was. This was RPG heaven. A game longer and harder than any THREE RPG’s put together, with graphics that caused your jaw to drop wide open back then. And even today one is amazed how many years before its time Phantasy Star 2 was in terms of appearance and story.

The game takes place 1,000 years after the original Phantasy Star. The series remains in the system of Algo and you begin the game as Rolf, who is dreaming of Alis and her battle against Dark Force and Lassic. I always gathered this to be that either Rolf was a descendant of Alis or that due to the grave nature of the battle in question, it was ingrained upon the unconscious collective of the world. And of course, it was the former that was correct.

When Rolf awakes, you are greeted to a much different plot that the one of Phantasy Star 2. Rolf is a government agent on the planet of Motavia investigating the recent outbreak of strange mutants that now plague the land. Teamed up with Nei, one of the few benevolent “Bio-hazards” that Rolf encountered and adopted seven months ago, Rolf sets out to discover what has happened to his world.

Now the relationship between Nei and Rolf is odd to say the least. It’s obvious they love each other, but Nei seems to be IN LOVE with Rolf, while Rolf (in my opinion) looks at Nei as a sister. Rolf even says so in the game, but there are some furries/pedophiles/fan fic writers that want those two to hook up. But I hate to break it to them, Nei and Rolf have an innocent relationship.

As the game goes on, you learn that Mother Brain, the living computer that controls the planet has gone awry. But in fact Mother Brain is still completely lucid and in control of its senses. All this is happening not because it is breaking down, but because it is putting its master plan into action.

Yet, behind Mother Brain there is a greater evil pulling the strings. No, it’s not Dark Force, although he does appear in the game, and is the hardest boss to defeat. The true enemy hits home with shock and sadness. It is no great super demon god or almighty genocidal warrior. It is something far simpler and tragic. And like this finally revealed evil, the ending of Phantasy Star 2 is tinged with sadness and sorrow as well. It is open ended, and some may say confusing, but this is the only RPG I can think of where you can walk away saying that your characters won the battle, but in the end, evil won the war. Until PS3 and 4 of course…

Besides the epic plot which remained burned into the memory of gamers and the amazing graphics for its time, Phantasy Star 2 did a lot of other things that still manage to stand out.

Phantasy Star 2 is a direct sequel with PS1. With old bosses, friends, and characters from the first game reappearing, you find yourself remembering bits of the original and why you loved that game as well. Lutz/Noah/Rune makes a quick appearance in the game

There are also the names of all the techniques and spells. Phantasy Star wanted you to be able to identify with the characters and empathize with the world, but at the same time, keep fully in your mind that this is an ALIEN population you are dealing with. This is not earth and as such, things have far different names then they would to earthlings.

Look at other RPG’S. What are fire spells usually called? Blaze, Inferno, Fire, etc. All normally understandable names. But in PS2, the names are distinctly unique. A fire spell is either Foi, Gifoi, or Nafoi. If you saw that written down, would you be able to instantly know that was a fire spell? Of course not! However to people that are Phantasy Star fanboys, words like foi, along with Zan, Gra, and Tsu are part of a language they now speak fluently. Although it may be hard at first for people new to the series to understand what these strange words are, there’s no better way to learn than by testing them out! A simple little touch like this went a long way in terms of defining a rich and deep history of the Universe that Phantasy Star takes place in. Wonderful, isn’t it?

Neatest of all is the fact that Algo really exists. Yes, you read that right. It is an eclipsing binary star 115 light years away from our own Sun. It’s 140 times brighter than our own and the star is the Medusa head in the constellation of Perseus, who you might know as, “The Clash of the Titans Guy.’ It is so bright that both stars can be seen without a telescope if you know where to look at night. And you are in the Northern Hemisphere. Since Algo is an Eclipsing Binary, if you spend all night watching the star you can actually see one of the stars eclipse the other. Go out and take a look. Just make sure that Earthlings never travel to Algo. Because then the dark portents of Phantasy Star 2 may in fact come to pass. BUM BUM BUM!

It’s just so hard to talk about how important Phantasy Star 2 is to RPG’s in general. The first truly gripping plot with surprised and twists the whole way through, a deep (for its day) battle system, characters that joined and left your party. Ones that even died! In the end you dealt with a game that had a distinct good and a definite evil, yet when the finals cinemas flickered out and the credits stopped rolling you found yourself honestly wishing that there was more. You couldn’t let a game end like THAT.

And then of course Phantasy Star 3 came along which was a good game but in the end it had nothing at all to do with the other two games except for (Barely) lip service. But PSIV was a game that captured the same beauty of PS2, but was so much long. SO MUCH LONGER. Which actually became a detriment in my eyes because I like DW VII, I just wanted the bloody thing to end.

You have to play this game. If only to say you have. The story is so gripping, you can’t help but want to play it through and see a drama like no other. You might hate the battle system, it’s true. Turn based first person combat isn’t for everyone, but the strategy involved in this game is amazing, especially since it’s 15 years old. But by playing it on the GBA today in it’s original (but now portable) form, you’ll come to realize why this game has earned its status as a true icon in not only RPG gaming, but as a standard bearer for what all video games should be.

I could spend my last few minutes harping on the fact Sega should do something with the Phantasy Star series other than yet another crappy PSO game. This should be a flagship title along with Sonic and Panzer Dragoon and Shining Force. But sadly only Sonic seems to get icon status with Sega higher ups nowadays. And we are all the poorer for it.

#23. Thousand Arms
Release Date: 9/30/1999
Designed by: Red Company
Published by: Atlus
Systems Released on: Sony Playstation

Anata Ga moshi tabidatsu
Sono hi ga itsuka kitara
Sono kara futari de hajimeyou

Who knew the opening song to this incredible game would be the first real introduction to the J-Pop artist, Ayumi Hamasaki, eh? The add bonus is she’s as cute as this song is addicting. But that’s a tale for another time. One better told in Lee’s column as I’m sure he’s just as familiar with J-Pop.

Thousand Arms is the most unique RPG in English. So unique I honestly still can’t believe it made it over here. Not only did it sport a cast of well known voice actors delivering over 12 hours of dialogue, but this game gave US gamers its first taste of a uniquely Japanese Phenomenon: The Dating Sim.

A dating sim is oddly, just as it sounds. You answer questions delivered by an electronic female in order to woo them. My personal favorite in the genre is Bloody Bride, which Dave Olivera put me on to. Lucard + Vampire dating = too many easy jokes about my name. The questions can be anything from, “Do you think I’m pretty?” to, “Are my breasts big enough?”

As odd as the genre sounds, it is both hilarious and addicting. The gambit ranges from a simple Q&A game to the Love Hina game for the GBA. I honestly can’t understand why the genre has never made it to the US, other than a fear that it just wouldn’t sell or overly conservative nutjobs decrying Dating Sims as more proof that video games are demoralizing society.

Thousand Arms is not the first game to bring over aspects of the Dating Sim genre to the US. Harvest Moon and Azure Dreams both boast aspects of the genre. Nor is it the first to combine RPG goodness with Dating Sim madness. Sakura Taisen holds that distinction. As I said however, Thousands Arms is the first to bring a full fledged dating SIM/RPG crossover to the states, and Atlus, god bless their hearts brought it over. Note however Atlus brings over insane games like this and Tail Concerto but not oh say…DEVIL SUMMONER OR INNOCENT SIN! Atlus is the publisher that appears in this countdown the most with approximately six games on the chart BTW. 411mania LOOOOOVES Atlus.

The story of Thousand Arms is the story of Meis Triumph and his adventures with 9 lovely women. Meis comes from a family of aristocratic blacksmiths that also happened to be the possessors of the biggest libidos ever to exist. Note you never see Meis’ mom for example. She probably got sexed up to death by Cliff, Meis’ randy father.

When the game begins Meis is poor and disgraced and he his so starving (and horny) that he is about to sell his family sword for a meal in the town of BOYZBY. Upon entering the town however, Meis encounters a quartet of thugs attacking a beautiful young woman named Sodina. Meis does his best to save her (woo her) by defeating the hooligans, but his sword shatters and well…needless to say the next thing Meis knows he is waking up in the house of Jyabil, a blacksmith with incredible talent. Jyabil teaches you how to infuse sword spirits and elemental powers into your blade, enabling you to become the strongest warrior of them all.

There’s just one catch. Spirits are harnessed using the affections of beautiful young women. And this is where the dating sim part of Thousand Arms comes into play. By going on dates and answering questions correctly, one of 9 girls will becomes more emotionally attached to you, which will allow you to harness said emotion to give your (and other playable characters) weapons stronger powers. Yes, Thousand Arms teaches you that manipulate a good woman’s love and passion is a good thing that will end in you receiving power and wealth beyond normal human comprehension. Trust this game, for it is wise and will get you poon. Really! You won’t be laughed at or have a chocolate shake poured in your lap at all!

In addition to the dates, each girl has a special mini game you can play with them that can raise or lower affection levels. Each is fun and addicting, with a decent level of challenge. But neatest of all…is STICKER CLUB! That’s right, in true Japanese dating fashion, you can go to all sorts of photo/sticker booths with your date and have pictures taken with them. You can select different backgrounds and the end result of how you and your date look depends on their emotional attachment to you.

Trust me when I empathically state that the dating aspect of Thousand Arms is addicting because it is so much fun. Even when you screw up the answers, you don’t mind. There’s so much dialogue to hear and so many questions to guess the answer to, that you can’t help but find yourself loving this game. My personal favorite chick is Wynna, the blonde pirate whose eye patch keeps switching sockets. My least favorite is of course Neisha. Woof Woof.

There are so many wonderful characters in this game that you will fall in love with. Even the bad guys! The Mechas! The Dark Master! BANDIGER (played by the voice of Mysterious Priest Xellos from Slayers! See how the countdown ties together here kids?) Ratchet (Harley Quinn!) Every character from Meis to the Emperor are ones you will wish had an anime made about them. The story is that incredible. If I was basing games SOLELY on the story, Thousand Arms would be even higher up the countdown. With characterization above and beyond most RPGS, hilarious animations and wonderful voice acting, it’s almost a shame the game is something other than a dating sim. After all, the gameplay is the only real flaw in this game.

Now, the above sentence may make you cringe, but hear me out. As I have been saying, Thousand Arms is one of the most unique ever. And the battle system is no different at all.

Out of all you characters, you can have only 3 on the battle field at once. Same with monsters. But only one on each side can fight at a time. Think of Thousand Arms combat at Survivor Series, where occasionally (randomly) the non legal members of each side can interfere in their own unique way, either by healing you, raise your attack or defense power, or other things. When one character falls of retreats, the next member of the team is up to bat and so on until one side wins. Now this sounds like a lot of fun. A wrestling Roleplaying Game? But in fact, your characters are so much more powerful than the enemy, that by the time you are 75% done the game, you are all maxed out. Even the end boss isn’t that hard. To be honest when I first beat the game, I never switched out. Meis fought every battle. And in Thousand Arms there are tons and tons of battles.

See, in college we developed a Thousand Arms drinking game. And one of the fastest ways to get drunk was every time there was a battle, you had to take a drink. The most steps Meis ever got to take without a battle was 12. Usually it was between 3-7 before a random battle occurred. Once I had 8 battles in a row with only 8 steps. I shit you not. The reason your characters become godlike so quickly is you don’t have a choice. Experience and gold is shoved down your throat! And most of you know by now, I much I despise the concept of random battles and Thousand Arms has more battles that I have ever had to deal with in a video game before. And at the start of the game, this annoyed the crap out of me. It almost made me want to stop playing the game. But then I my emotional nerves got cauterized and I just accepted the game for what it is. Especially when I read in the manual about some changes they made for the US game.

See, according to Altus USA, the original Japanese version had monsters that were even easier to beat, and get this, they REDUCED THE NUMBER OF RANDOM BATTLES. Yes. The game was even easier and there were more beasties when the game was filled with Japanese scrawl. After reading that and actually letting the words think I, I decided to just enjoy the game for what it was: A great story, a hilarious dating sim, and a plodding dungeon crawl. Besides, it was the first real Dating Sim in English! IN ENGLISH! With terrific recognizable voice actors! And a plot that was unique enough that no US gamers would have played anything like this unless they were import crazy Japanophiles.

Sadly the game didn’t do that well, even with the coupon inside where you could get a free multimedia CD with desktop themes, screensavers, the entire soundtrack and more! Atlus’ inability to market anything more than half assed reduced this game to obscurity beyond obscurity. But you can still buy it off the Atlus website or ebay without the price being too jacked up.

See how different an RPG can be outside the same old turn based two steps forward, swing a sword, walk back crap a certain company beginning with S had entrenched upon your psyche. See how outside the box the games can get! Enjoy a wonderful score complete with a beautiful set of….vocals. If you can’t stand RPG’s, this is a game you should try to pick up if only to experience something other than what you know. If you always wanted to see how weird some Japanese games can be, but want to understand what is going on, again, Thousand Arms may be your bag. And if you’ve never played a Dating Sim, it really is something you have to experience to truly understand why it’s so addictingly silly.

#22. Rhapsody
Release Date: 12/17/98 (Japan) or 3/30/00 (USA)
Developer: Nippon Ichi
Publisher: Atlus
Systems Released on: Sony Playstation

To be honest, it surprises me I ranked the game this low. I thought for sure this would be in the top fifteen because I honestly listen to the soundtrack of this game so much and have a lot of great memories from playing this. Not only from my enjoyment, but from watching two ex girlfriends fall in love with this game and actually become addicted to the soundtrack as well. But beyond an adorable kawaii fluffy cute so sickeningly sweet and silly story that you can get diabetes from playing this game, some wonderful music and voice acting, and some cute characters, you have the fact the game does have a few distinct flaws.

I want to get these out of the way right now. The negatives. Because then I can focus on how great this game is and why these minor imperfections are easily overlooked.

First, the game is quite possibly the shortest tactics RPG ever, clocking in at around a dozen hours. On hard having found ever possible dungeon, puppet and maxed out my characters, I still beat the game in ten and a quarter hours. And this brings me to the second thing, like Thousand Arms the game is quite easy and your characters will be maxed out before the game is done. Finally, all of the dungeons are rather the same and look alike. Run to a door, open it, and repeat until you clear the dungeon/castle/BBQ dining establishment/etc. And that in one tiny paragraph are the flaws.

Now for what is wonderful about this game. If you’ve been keeping track of developers and publishers, you know this game is made by the same people who made Disgaea. So you know the story is f*cking brilliant. In fact, as I said last week, some characters from Rhapsody appear in Disgaea, which is a lovely touch. Especially as it’s the best characters.

Rhapsody takes everything that is stereotypical about RPG’s and turns them on their head. Most “popular’ RPG’s are usually geared for the stereotypical fan of said genre: A social malformite misogynist that wants angst ridden spikey haired characters without personality and women with huge…tracts of land that fall in love with said anti-hero. YUCK. And although these cretins do exist, and populate a lot of message board with their anti-kiddee or anything happy rhetoric, Rhapsody ignores them all and gives us a completely different game from what most gamers are used to.

In Rhapsody you play as Cornet, a young girl who has the ability to talk to and animate puppets. No, she’s not schizophrenic! Cornet is also a talented musician and singer who has a puppet fairy guardian in Kururu, who provides the sarcasm and dry wit to Cornet’s sweet naivety. Cornet dreams of marrying the Prince of the land, and is actually saved by him at one point from the evil Marjoly clan who reside in a haven called the Beauty Castle. (Disgaea fans will know who they are!) After encountering the Prince, the evil witch Marjoly decides she too is in love with the Prince and plays to seduce him. However Marjoly may be beautiful on the outside, but inside she is far older than she appears. And with age comes senility. And let’s just say her attempts to ensnare the Prince in the way she wants doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

And so Cornet has to end up returning the favor and save her beloved prince from evil as he once did her. Of course there’s also the petty catfights with Cornet’s rival Etoile, finding puppets and monsters to join you in your quest, and even helping puppets with their own private goals and needs so that they can be reincarnated into the next life. Yes, puppets have souls and can eventually become real boys and girls or whatevers just like in a certain Disney classic. Thankfully there’s no talking crickets.

It’s excellent to see a game where an RPG where the main character is a heroine. And not a 2-D giggling airhead or daft but sweet Aeris wanna-be heroines like you find in most RPG’s. Cornet is a fully developed character who grows from a young girl daydreaming about being a princess to growing up into a strong adult woman. The maturation is subtle but you find yourself watching her grow into her role as saviour of the Prince and all of Marls Kingdom while still maintaining the femininity she had at the very beginning of the game.

Now you may be thinking with songs and dances and where all the major characters are girls, that this is going to be a kiddee game or something boys would hate. WRONG. Yes the game can be played a younger audience or those not exposed to RPG’s before. But that’s due to its lack of difficulty and easy learning curve. The story is well written as it can be understood by a preteen or young adult, yet there are gags and witty retorts throughout that are at a obviously adult level. Although those are usually by Kururu. And any guy who has a problem sitting through a musical puppet filled RPG just needs to hear the following sentence: TODD MCFARLANE’S SPAWN IS A PLAYABLE CHARACTER IN THIS GAME. Now, what did all you naysayers want to say about Rhapsody being a pubeless female only minded game? Truly, Cornet and Spawn are a wonderfully surreal team. But it works. It honestly works. Oddly enough, I’ve noticed that even though Spawn appears directly in the manual, no FAQ on the game seems to show Spawn or how to get him, so I’ll do that hear. Keep checking your mailbox as often as possible. Eventually Spawn will show up there in your mailbox, crawl out and agree to join your team. Yes, Spawn lives in Cornet’s mailbox. What’s wrong with that?

The game also doesn’t pull any punches in terms of adult themes as well. Political intrigue, betrayal by lovers, senseless cruelty and death are all themes that occur within the plot of Rhapsody. It’s mindblowing how much this game has packed into its story. I know 40-60 hour+ RPGs that don’t have all the story that is contained within the annals of Rhapsody. Rhapsody’s plot works for gamers of all ages and genders. Kids and younger gamers will view the story as a funny fairy tale with some mature issues, while Adult gamers will be able to enjoy the more mature humour put into the game and be able to appreciate the fact that no character in the game is truly 100% evil or 100% good. Etoile, the spoiled little rich girl that enjoys making Cornet’s life miserable has issues and pathos to deal with as you discover in the game, and in the end, she and Cornet are able to respect one another, if not be friends altogether.

Is Rhapsody the most adult game ever? No. Of course not. It doesn’t make the claim to be, All it tries to do is be an electronic fairy tale for all ages. And it succeeds in this goal masterfully. I can’t encourage you enough to step out of your box and see all the characters in this game and find yourself, against your better macho oh so cool needing blood and death visage, enjoying this game and the characters. Plus the god of darkness is a levitating cuddly long eared fluffy bunny wabbit! SO CUTE!

Let’s talk about game play now. Cornet can have 3 puppets or monsters on her team at once. It’s a Tactics style combat game, but closer to chessboard style tactics like in Koudelka than in Ogre Tactics or Shining Force. The puppets and monsters do most of the fighting while Cornet…plays her horn. Yes. That’s right. Cornet attacks while playing a horn. As well, instead of attacking, she can just toot a happy tune and collect energy from her puppets and then release one of her special super attacks like Pancake Smash or the Flan attack. Yes, Cornet had the ability to summon giant baked goods from the sky to crush her enemies. Don’t try to understand it. Just accept the insanity of the battles. They’re merely there to help progress the plot along.

Finally, what would Rhapsody be without the music. It is after all, “A Musical Adventure.’ Sure none of these songs are going to appear on the Top 40 Billboard chart, but I’ll take the Music in Rhapsody a hundred times over “Colours of the Wind,’ the entire soundtrack to Tarzan and most other Disney Tunes. They’re catchy and stick in your head far longer than you could ever want them too, but to watch the musical numbers in the game will make even the most jaded and gloom based RPG’er laugh.

The best song is the game is Marjoly’s song. The Witch-Queen of Beauty Castle is one of my all time favorite RPG villains if for no other reason than she’s just not very good at being a bloody bad guy. Aside from the occasional dark sub plot (such as the puppets angry at the original puppet master, and a Romeo and Juliet side story), even the bad guys are laced with humour and a level of frivolity that makes one addicted to the gabe over the top comedy.

Not only can you hear the listen to the songs in English, but you also have an option to hear the songs in Japanese as well. When was the last time you saw a US game actually keep the Japanese audio tracts intact instead of just dubbing over them? With Rhapsody you have a choice of what language you want to hear the game in. Note of course the same would-be ultra hardcore gamers needing their RPG’s filled with gloom and doom will bash Rhapsody for being cute while lamenting games not being in their original native Japanese. If you know anyone like this, please give them a wedgie for me.

And what game that labels itself as a musical would be complete without an extra CD of all the songs and score from the game? Like I said, I do whip out the Rhapsody Soundtrack about once a week to listen to as background noise while I write, and it never fails to help remind me why I love all the games on this list so much.

Like Thousand Arms, Rhapsody is outside the comfort level of those gamers looking only for bishonen pretty bois and stories about the destruction of the world and all powerful super tyrants. But if you’re one of those gamers that seeks out the obscure, the original, and clever, you can’t go wrong with Rhapsody. Even if you’re not a big RPG fan, it’s only ten hours long. You get a great story and a quick RPG to see if this is a genre you could get into. As long as you can stand the saccharin mixed in with the sarcasm, you’ll find yourself wondering how this little gem slipping under your radar back when it came out.