Monday, September 28, 2009


I spent the majority of last week in Arizona, which has left me jet lagged and woefully unprepared for a Retro Treasures post. We shall return to our regularly scheduled posting next week, but at some point during the week, I shall share a 16-bit styled RPG that I did play while I was gone. Enjoy your night, and I'll see you in a few days.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


To a kid, there's just something insanely cool about robots fighting. When I was young, cybernetics and robots were always fascinating subjects to play with in my head, which more often than not led to a combination of Mega Man and RoboCop And yet, for some reason, I never learned about mechs. It wasn't until Toonami began airing Gundam Wing that I even learned the term existed. Which is a shame because I just know the younger version of myself would have just gone crazy over the notion of giant, bipedal, robotic tanks. But unfortunately, I had no idea that such a thing existed, which is why Konami's 1993 game, Cybernator, completely passed me by. So is the game everything a robot loving kid could ask for or does collapse under its own weight.

The story is about as typical as can be. The world's supply of fossil fuels is running out, which leads to an outbreak of war over not only the remaining supply but also territory rights to the moon. You play as Jake Brain, an AS pilot on the Aerial Cruiser, the Versis. Most of the plot is told through mission briefings, but there are occasional bits of dialogue occur during the levels, which unfortunately halt all the action. They're short, but annoying none the less.

However, despite the over done plot, there was one thing that did stand out. In the opening scenes, narrated by Jake, he makes it a point that he's not fighting for any grand reason. He's not seeking justice or fighting because he's patriotic. No, he's solely fighting to survive and nothing more. He doesn't even paint his his own country as anything but selfish. In a time when most games have clear cut good guys and bad guys, it's refreshing to see a game that's decidedly neutral.

Visually, the game looks great. Jake's Mech is bulky and sturdy looking, as if it had evolved from attaching legs to a tank and then making it humanoid. As a result, the mech feels much more like the powerful, heavy weapon in its design than how they are portrayed in some Animes. Although, it's not a clear cut departure because it definitely took a lot of design choices from the Gundam series.

The enemies are also very nicely stylized and animated. From the other bulky mechs and robots to the humans that scamper about, everything you come across looks right for a mech series. The boss fights in particular are massive and interesting, save the subterranean, robot worm battle, which is mostly just annoying and ho-hum.

The levels themselves are nice as well, ranging from the interior of a space colony and a mobile base hidden in a meteor to the capital city of the enemy country. Every locale feels fresh and distinct from the last. The backgrounds are also nicely detailed, such as the vaguely D.C. looking appearance given to the buildings in the enemy capital. There is no denying that the game looks pretty good, but how does it play?

For the most part, the game plays like you would expect. The player jumps and guns Jake's way to right through waves of enemies and a boss. To help him out, Jake's mech is capable of dashing for a short distance, hovering for a time, or bringing up an impenetrable shield that will block all enemy fire, even if it's coming from behind. This, of course, begs the age old question, "Why didn't they just build the whole thing out of that material?"

There are also several weapons, including a hidden one, at Jake's disposale. Each of the weapons work a little differently. The Vulcan Cannon is one of the starting weapons and the player's standard choice if they want rapid fire. The punch is the other, and though it doesn't look as useful, there are certain situations where it will come in handy. Other weapons include a missile launcher and a laser beam which can be found in other levels. The extremely powerful napalm gun is the games hidden weapon, and can only be acquired by beating the first level without shooting anything except for the boss.

As I've mentioned before, it's all a bit standard, but Cybernator does add something to spice things up. All of the weapons are upgradable, which not only increases damage dealt, but often changes how the weapon reacts. Take the Vulcan Cannon, for instance. When the player first begins, the gun is simply a pure rapid fire gun. It's fast and little more, but add a weapon level, and the bullets begin to ricochet. When the third level is reached, the reload time is cut to almost nothing.

These little tweaks go a long way toward making Jake's mech feel like an unstoppable killing force, which is heightened even more if the player gets the napalm gun. However, getting the upgrades isn't so simple as picking up a quick power up. To upgrade a gun, the player must collect p-chips. The number required to upgrade is listed beside the weapon's energy bar. And though p-chips are plentiful, they disappear fairly quickly, which means the player has to be paying attention or they might miss them.

The game's greatest weakness, though, is in its feel. Jake's mech is heavy and slow to move, which makes the game feel sluggish. In my opinion, this adds a feeling of weight to the mechs and makes it feel more like I'm piloting a powerful mobile suit. But for others the sluggishness, will annoy them as more often than not, it makes dodging much more difficult than it would be in other action games.

On the other hand, the games greatest strength is its willingness to vary its gameplay enough to keep it feeling fresh. The first level of the game is your standard run and gun segment, but the second starts off like a horizontal shooter and finishes in a section of zero gravity, which allows the player greater freedom of movement. There are other sections, though these are the weakest, that have the player's mech rushing across the ground at rapid speed, fighting off enemies and dodging traps. Though they're not all created equal, the varied structures of the levels do a good job of not allowing any one section to grow stale.

Musically, the game is truly great, with its large sweeping songs that are both enjoyable to listen to and very fitting for the theme. The sound effects are also quite good, with the sounds of the heavy steps and landings adding a great sense of weight to the game. The weapons also sound suitably powerful.

In the end, enjoying Cybernator depends on whether the controls feel right to you or not. If they feel sluggish and cumbersome, the player will not enjoy much of their experience with the game. However, if they feel like they fit the setting and add a sense of depth and weight to the game, then one will have found themselves an enjoyable game.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Final Fantasy VIII: Beating the System

September 9th, 1999 was a fantastic day to be a gamer. It was the release of Final Fantasy VIII, Square's followup to their breakthrough (In America) title: Final Fantasy VII. But it was also the release SEGA's swan song, the Dreamcast, a system that would endear itself in the hearts of SEGA fans and still be spoken of to this day as a system that was ahead of its time. I made one hard rule when I started this blog. I would only look at games from systems whose generation has passed. With the Playstation 2 still actively receiving new games, the Dreamcast can't be reviewed yet. However, I still wished to commemorate that day, and I could do so by looking back at a game I didn't understand and despised it for that, in order to see if time and understanding would change my perception. I am, of course, referring to Squaresoft's divisive classic, Final Fantasy VIII.

I'm not going to go into detail about the plot or the characters. Most people already know who Squall is and the problems he has, and any insight that I could offer has probably already been discussed much more eloquently than I am capable of. Instead, I want to discuss the Guardian Force system, the core that all of the gameplay is based on and how it can be used to create a game that plays exactly as the player wants.

The Guardians are Final Fantasy VIII's summons, except that instead of solely being the characters big magic attacks, they are the source of all their powers. Without a GF equipped, the only thing they are capable of doing is attacking. Once a GF is equipped though, there becomes a whole range of options for the player to chose from. At the start, these include the magic, item, GF, and draw commands. Three of these commands can be added to your character at any time, and there are others that can be unlocked later, which allows the player to customize how each character approaches battle.

For what I want to discuss though, draw is probably the most important of the skills available at first. That's because magic in Final Fantasy VIII isn't determined in the normal way. A spell doesn't require a certain amount of magic points out of your total pool in order to be cast. Rather, magic in this game is a consumable, which means that as long as you have it, you can use it.

When the character draws a spell from an enemy, it can be either cast or stocked to a maximum of 100 spells. If the player wanted to, he or she could draw all 100 of those from a single enemy. Lets say 100 fires were drawn. Now the player can do one of several things with that group of spells. The most obvious use is that they could be cast on enemies, but that's, sometimes, not the best choice.

Take junctioning, for example. Junctioning, for ease of contemplation, can be thought of as a complicated equipment screen. The Guardian Forces act as the main piece of equipment, each of which comes with different attributes and characteristics. They have skills like ATK-J or HP-J, modifiers like MAG +20%, commands like 'defend' or 'card', skills that effect the summon itself, and some that grant useful skills for inventory management. Some of these skills are available at the start, while others must be learned by gaining AP.

But what we are concerned with, at this moment, are the ATK-J type skills. What these skills allow the player to do is junction a group of spells to the stat it names. So, if the the Guardian Force that a player has equipped knows ATK-J, then one becomes capable of junctioning magic to it. So, if we junction 100 fires to ATK, then that character's attack will increase by 10 points. If we junction 99, then it's 9 points. 85 would be 8 points. And if fira or firaga were junctioned the increase would be even greater. Now, the player is stronger than before, but the trade off is that there is a penalty for using those spells.

At first, this only allows the player to increase the characters stats a little beyond what they should be capable of, and as one would expect, the game is slow to dole out enemies with more powerful spells for the characters to draw from and draw points, special spots on the map where magic can be drawn, are not a good source of magic. However, for the patient, that is not a problem.

The inventory management skills I spoke of come into play here. By learning certain skills, the player is able to refine items into magic. The M-stone piece could be used to make fire magic for example. The Magic Stone could create fira. While the Wizard Stone could be turned into firaga. By refining items into magic, it is possible to gain a large number of powerful magics early in the game.

However, one might think, and rightly so, that collecting these items would require a lot of battles, which would raise the party's level, defeating the purpose of junctioning all that magic because you've already grown stronger. That is only half right, and there are two reasons for that.

The first is that the game levels with you, so as the character's levels grow higher, the game becomes more difficult to compensate. So if the player is the type of person that likes to grind until they are more powerful than his or her enemies, they are actually doing themselves a disservice.

The second reason is that the player does not have to gain EXP for their battles. With the use of the Card command, any monster can be captured and turned into a card. This grants the player everything that came from winning the battle except the EXP. With the use of this command, it is possible for the player to control their level, and by that, the difficulty of the game.

These cards can then be put to an even better use. By acquiring a skill called Card Mod, the player can refine cards into items, and those items into spells. The Card and the Card Mod skills are taught by one of your first Guardian Forces, as is a skill that will turn five low level spells into a mid level spell. For those who want to, it is possible, very early in the game, to create spells beyond what one should have.

What this does, and why this is so amazing, is that it places full control over the game in the hands of the player. If one wants the game to be more difficult, he or she can increase the characters' levels and lower their junctions. If one wants it to be easier, then Card or run from fights to manage your levels and create high level spells to junction.

I used to hate Final Fantasy VIII, and that's because, for the most part, the tutorials explaining the game were horrible. There are a lot of things, such as the game scaling with you, that weren't even explained outside of a SeeD Test. I played though most of the game lost and struggling. And I still hold the game responsible for that. However, going back and figuring out what was actually going on, I was able to find a deep and engaging system that required the player to grind intelligently rather than by simply hitting stuff over and over again until the characters had bigger muscles. And that is what makesFinal Fantasy VIII so fun.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day

Been a hectic week, and unfortunately, I didn't have time to review a game. So, I'll see you guys next week. Happy Labor Day.