Foundation: Episode III - The Top 25 Square Games
By Kevin Leung, September 8th, 2002
Do you still have the original NES cartridge of Final Fantasy? Good. Hold it up to your ear; I think you can hear it talk:
"Listen here, kiddo. Back in my day, we didn't need no fancy three-dee graphics! All them pretty FMV movies you see just rot your brain! It's like candy! No good fer ya. We had to rough it out, see - it was all about the gameplay! Gunblades and Summon Monsters didn't mean squat if all ya had was a handful of experience points! Psh, a whole lotta good that'll do ya. What's that? Emerald Weapon? I'll beat him with my cane and one hand tied behind my back! Try the Warmech! Ya darn tootin' that's a boss! Now, there's something that'll put colour in your cheekbones. And when did everything get so darn expensive??? In my day, 3 gold coins could get you a sword, a phoenix down, an airship, and a good night's sleep at the inn! You kids should be grateful for everything ya got. We didn't have no CD-ROM format. If you pushed the power button and all ya got was a grey screen and some funny lookin' symbols, that meant your cartridge ain't workin', boss. Ya had to blow inside the cartridge, ya see. Yeah, just blow in there and make sure all that space dust was gone. Speakin' of which, why don't you dust me off and gimme another spin, huh? Whaddya say? Then we can go listen to some real rock, none of this Linkin Park noise..."
Plays like: Your father's Dungeons & Dragons combined with your little brother's Lego.
"It's the first Final Fantasy, what more needs to be said? Without this game, we wouldn't be able to enjoy the other plethora of Square games. Period."
Now that they're in bed again, it seems a bit silly to think that Square and Nintendo actually had an uncivilized relationship. After all, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicle is blooming well while a portable remake of Final Fantasy III has been announced for the GBA. During the 16-bit era, they actually cooperated and made a little wonder called Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Once again, Princess Toadstool finds herself to be the unwilling captive of that wacky Bowser (he just doesn't quit). But when Mario goes for the obligatory rescue, our hero finds more action than he bargains for when seven stars and a giant sword falls from the sky. If there's one word that describes Super Mario RPG, it would be 'fun' and that's really all you can ask for in any Nintendo product. When you play the game, it's obvious that Square scrutinized every detail of the Mario universe and translated the world's most loved platformer into a colourful, enchanting adventure with that Squaresoft signature style. Super Mario RPG represents one of the best collaborations from two of the top videogame developers of our time. All we have to do now is cross our fingers and hope Nintendo and Square play nice for the long haul. Could there be a Pokémon or Metroid RPG in our immediate future?
Plays like: A much better game than Luigi's Mansion.
"This game seemed like a no-brainer to me. It just had to happen but Square could actually make it good whereas Nintendo seemed intent on making the same game over and over again. In my opinion, this RPG not only took SMB out of its monotonous rut, it was also loads of fun to play as well. There were also tons of mini-games and secrets to be found that basically started Square's trend to include mini-games in future Final Fantasy games."
Three. Player. RPG. In 1993, those words took over my brain like mental cancer with a license to kill. Three people simultaneously playing the same role-playing game? You're joking! That's never been done before. No way was I going to miss this event. So one sunny afternoon, I snagged a copy of Secret of Mana and my buddies came over with the Super Multi-Tap. Word of mouth eventually permeated down the street so imagine six or seven boys crammed in a living room, passing the controllers around, huddled around the T.V., basking in its warm glow while trying to process the insanity. Now that I think about it, it was hysterical to hear someone cry, "Your turn is up! I want to be the girl!!!" We played until my parents kicked us out of the house. Experiencing Secret of Mana in and of itself is already awesome. But have you and your friends ever hacked away at a giant boss like lumberjacks on crack? Absolutely priceless. When I think back to those crazy moments, I can't help but think there's something...I dunno know, missing from videogames today. Have you noticed some of the hit titles that overwhelm the market? Counterstrike, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Super Smash Bros., Unreal Tournament, Warcraft III,...all of which are great. But what do they all have in common? They're all competitive multiplayer games: someone will always be the winner and someone will always be the loser. Nothing wrong with that, I got a Ph.D. in Street Fighter. I'm just waxing poetic over the absence of good cooperative multiplayer games, the kind where people embark on an adventure and work together to save the world. Kind of like Secret of Mana.
Plays like: Tag team matches with goblins, magic, dragons, and three innocent kids.
"This game just plain rocks! Many are the days I recall when my friends and I would return home from school and play a kick ass 3-player game of Secret of Mana! No game to date has managed to even match the multiplayer experience and that's what makes this game not only great but original as well."
Let's not beat around the bush. In North America, Final Fantasy V is like that quiet, obscure cousin on your mother's nephew's side. You're aware that he exists but you've never really met him. Compared with the rest of the Final Fantasy family, fans have already passed judgement: not as popular as VI and not good enough to stand head and shoulders with IV. Poor Final Fantasy V. If only you had been released in the Western market sooner, we might be able to appreciate your old-school tale of Bartz, Faris, and the gang. I guess you can thank your lucky stars that Square decided against naming you Final Fantasy Extreme (or some other executive bonehead label) for the American audience. But don't fret! You've made many contributions in your own special way. You gave us the first appearance of Boko. You retired the whole "Search for the Crystals" gig. And remember how you made that Job system so popular? Even Dragon Quest down the street wanted to copy you. Not to mention that Gilgamesh was and always will be THE MAN. Those are some mighty fine achievements, son. Heck, you're all grown up now and before we know it, you'll be off to college. You'll probably meet some nice girl and settle down. Final Fantasy V, we're so proud of you.
Plays like: An RPG history lesson.
"As time went on, I suddenly realized that I was actually running around looking for enemies to level up. The endless customization of the Job system took on a whole new depth back then, effectively making your character diverse. And when you finally got to choose the legendary weapons, that invoked in me that childhood glee of what to choose next."
If Final Fantasy is a summer blockbuster movie, then Vagrant Story is theatre. Rarely has a game combined narrative and deep gameplay mechanics more successfully. But let's face it: this game is shunned. That's the reality and it doesn't make any sense to me. With so much public disdain, I sometimes feel like I'm one of the five people on earth who likes this game. Say what you want, but I respect the fact that this RPG contains graceful, sophisticated dialogue and prose that never patronizes the player. Instead, it acknowledges our intelligence, an earth-shattering concept that no other developer has ever bothered to reproduce. When people ask me what it means for a game to be a work of art, I waste no time describing Vagrant Story. Critics sing nothing but high praise, literally tripping over themselves to sanction perfect marks. Right from the opening sequence, we feast on detailed dioramic scenery rendered in cold shadows and dramatic lighting: 'atmospheric' is just not a strong enough word. Ashley Riot and the sinfully delightful Sydney Losstarot deliver their lines with the most convincing minimalistic expressions and body language I've ever seen in a game. Those are not 3D models, my friend: they're actors. And when you finally see all the harmonic elements working together, the clockwork gameplay, the challenging puzzles, the most elegant and literary story backed by what is unarguably the strongest writing you will ever witness in 17 years of modern gaming, that's when lightning strikes you. Damn, this is so much fun. It's fun and it should be elevated to classic status. Hell, make it a mandatory part of the academic gaming curriculum in 2010.
Why then, does Vagrant Story continue to get the shaft?
Show me someone who dislikes Vagrant Story and I'll show you someone who doesn't give good videogames a fair chance. Yes, the game is a bit confusing at first but you know what they say - nothing ventured, nothing gained. This isn't disposable popcorn entertainment that's ready to heat and serve in two minutes. It doesn't cater to the tweeny-something demographic that already spends way too much time playing Smackdown! Shut Your Mouth. It's a genuine experience that requires time and patience, and believe me, the investment pays off in spades. It's my hope that new and veteran gamers will let Vagrant Story into their lives because, simply put, it's a milestone achievement. And who knows, Square might get around to producing a sequel. The wait is gonna be excrutiating. C'mon, we're all waiting for that sequel, Square! Yeah, all five of us.
Plays like: Metal Shakespeare Solid
"Where do I start? Awesome localization of any RPG I've played so far, bar none. It would make you wonder if it was really in Japanese when it was first produced. Vagrant Story weaves an immensely intricate plot of humanity, the soul, and the gray lines that divide good and evil. The atmosphere is perfect. You actually hesitate to open the next door... Bottom line? Vagrant Story is a complex mesh of mysticism, magic, and adventure that stands above every other action-RPG ever made."
Squaresoft Hidden Gems:
Think about the world's best SHMUPS (that's Shoot'em-Ups, pilgrim): Gradius Gaiden, Thunderforce V, R-Type Delta, Radiant Silvergun, and Ikaruga probably come screaming to mind. Okay, I'll throw in Defender for all you Atari-heads but that's as charitable as I get. Now, I bet Square's Einänder didn't even make a blip on your radar. One of my favourite hobbies is to crouch in front of the used game section of some store in the middle of Boonyville and see what kind of treasure I can dig up. I happened to come across Einänder and decided to give it a try despite being skeptical. I mean, get real: Square makes RPGs, not shooters. How good could it be? Wow, I was so not prepared to get blown away. I haven't played a game this addictive since Contra III: The Alien Wars! The first thing that sucks you in is the nice graphics and buttery-smooth 60 fps. Using tight controls, the levels give you different viewing perspectives of the battlefield as you make your way through hostile airspace. Very nice touch. Did I mention the evil, pulse-pounding techno soundtrack? Hook up your speakers and crank that up! You've also got a good variety of kick-butt gun pods at your disposal but the beautiful thing is that certain weapons instantly demolish certain bosses (I'm talking touch of death, folks). Speaking of the bosses, they're not just big...they're downright gi-normous! Star Wars has never seen hulking dinosaurs like this. And the difficulty? Wimps need not apply. Level 1 is foreplay then you get rocked - this game is stupid hard. If your definition of fun is finding that one sweet spot to hover in as hundreds of bullets peel the paint off your ship, this game is for you. Or maybe you like suicide. When it comes to Einänder, you need mad skills to pay the bills. All of this just goes to show that Square does possess talent for other genres and the proof is right here pointing a laser cannon in your face. What can I say? I'm lovin' this game and you need to find yourself a copy ASAP. I'm constantly trying to better my score and earn more points. For the love of god...points! Who plays for points anymore?!
To Be Continued...
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